Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

This new Marx biography refrains from judging its subject with contemporary values, helping readers to understand the man's ideas in the context of his life.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber Liveright 672 pp.

For readers who hold certain beliefs about politics and economics, Karl Marx represents the Devil, because Marxism has become synonymous with Communism. And Communism, in turn, spawned the allegedly evil empires of the Soviet Union, Mainland China, Cuba, and other national governments in their sphere of influence.

To readers who hold opposite beliefs, Marx is something of a hero – not because his ideas spawned contemporary Communist governments, but because he was a thinker who dared to adopt a rebellious form of intellectualism.

Although Marx, who died in 1883, has not been a physical presence for a long, long time, he seems very much alive in certain circles of both scholars and workers.

Hogwash, says Marx biographer Jonathan Sperber, a history professor at the University of Missouri. Marx formulated his ideas in a long-ago century under conditions that no longer apply circa 2013. Sure, Marx is worth studying, as are many other men and women who made a mark while alive. But to believe Marx is responsible for the shape of the modern world demonstrates a logical flaw, Sperber states compellingly in the introduction to Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, his hefty, well researched, clearly written biography, the latest in a large stack of Marx biographies.

All serious biographers know they should avoid judging their subjects by contemporary values if the subjects are long dead. But many biographers cannot help themselves, violating the reasonable tenet because they get carried away with the subjects’ legacies. Sperber never falls into that trap. There is a sound reason the book’s subtitle stresses a “Nineteenth-Century Life” and not a “Twenty-First Century Life.”

Keeping Marx’s life in the 19th century is vital, Sperber says, because what Marx meant by “capitalism “ in his famous “The Communist Manifesto” is different from what we think of as the capitalism of 2013. Nor did Marx’s conception of the bourgeoisie equate to today’s group of global capitalists, notes Sperber, who speaks and reads the German language of his subject’s era. One reason Sperber decided to research a new biography of someone who has been “done” before is based in language.

“Unfortunately, the common practice of citing Marx’s words in standard translations that do not always do justice to the original context of his writings has frequently obscured their meanings," Sperber writes. He explains he has returned to Marx’s original writings – not questionable translations – “and devised my own, new translations; some of them will sound familiar, others rather different.”

In addition to placing Marx’s political activism in a societal context – he wanted autocratic regimes replaced by working-class governance – Sperber masterfully writes at the micro level, too. Marx’s intellectual output and his individual activism ebbed and flowed because of events in his personal life, events involving his wife, his children, his own health.  For example, the pain of an untreatable skin disease led Marx to reduce his political activism substantially after he entered his forties.

Sperber rightly makes much of Marx’s life in exile, as well. It is difficult to mount any meaningful sort of revolution after a powerful monarchy has forced a revolutionary thinker to live far away from his birthplace, especially when that thinker must juggle family obligations (aggravated by near poverty) with professional agendas. Their neighbors in London did not drive Marx and his family away when that city became their home in exile. But the British government and other British institutions did not always extend a warm welcome.   

There is no question that in Sperber’s view that Marx deserves credit for his serious thought and for his energetic efforts to spread his vision for a more just world order. Sperber is less certain why Marx achieved such influence across national boundaries and intellectual fads, but there is no doubt that Marx achieved an impact.

“It is remarkable how advocates of so many very different causes were drawn to the man and his doctrines, or what they imagined his doctrines to be,” Sperber writes. “Leaders of the mass labor movements of early twentieth-century Europe; proponents of violent overthrow of the authority of the czar; cadres of global communist revolution; anti-imperialist activists in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the mid-decades of the twentieth century; or discontented young intellectuals in the consumer society of 1960s Western Europe and North America were all Marxists.”

Naturally, given such disparate movements inspired by Marxism, advocates within each movement gave Marxism their own interpretations. Sperber posits that perhaps the actual doctrines, as intended by Marx himself, were beside the point. Marx’s primary legacy might have been something else, Sperber says – his “passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising, and intransigent nature.” Marx believed in the power of ideas, and did not let defeat silence him.

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, and serves as a director of BIO, the Biographers International Organization

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