The First Marxist

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Book Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber (Norton, 2013)


It seems like good news when a new book about Marx is not a hatchet job, is widely reviewed (though not, of course, in Ireland) and receives fairly universal acclaim in the mainstream press. Mind you, another biography of Marx that appeared in 1999 was also praised at the time and few seemed to be offended by the tone of its author, Francis Wheen. Wheen’s style, writing, for example, how Marx had little regard for his mother ‘except when he was trying to wheedle money out of the old girl’, revealed a supercilious, platitudinous attitude towards its subject, as if a book about Marx had to be presented as a jolly wheeze in case anyone thought he might be taking the ideas of the author of The Communist Manifesto just a tad too seriously. 

It comes as a relief to find that Jonathan Sperber does not write like Wheen, that he approaches his subject with scholarly seriousness and presents Marx’s life in elegant and scrupulous prose. He successfully communicates a sense of Marx as a restless, erudite intellectual, fired-up by the limitations of others and hugely learned in a way that contemporary academia would have difficulty in coping with. This in itself would not have been a problem for a German university in the nineteenth century but the young Marx burnt that bridge when he crossed over into Young Hegelian territory and identified himself as a caustic opponent of the ultra conservative Prussian order. Until then, his prospects were sunny. Born 1818 inTrier, a southwestern German town that had been annexed to the French republic during the Revolution, he was the son of a Jewish lawyer who pragmatically adopted Protestantism but never abandoned his adoption of Enlightenment thought. Sperber is adept at explaining the obstacles faced by Heinrich Marx and the pressure he would have faced to assimilate. For many in his position, Catholicism would have been the religion of choice for conversion but Heinrich was an heir to the Enlightenment and this explains choice of denomination. 

His son Karl seemed destined for a bright future in the same profession after gaining a doctorate and marrying Jenny von Westphalen, an older woman (mildly shocking at the time) with an aristocratic lineage. He began writing for a radical newspaper inGermany, the Rhineland News, and became its editor for a while. Journalism would become his main and precarious source of income and later he would write regularly for the New York Tribune. 

This engaging biography breaks new ground in detailing the vital role of journalism in Marx’s life and uses it to chart his changing politics. As editor of the Rhineland News, Marx is arguing for free trade and against censorship, gaining support from German liberals and bourgeoisie. In an article in 1842 communism is denounced in no uncertain terms: ‘practical attempts [promoting communism], even attempts en masse, can be answered with cannons’. Over the course of the next few years Marx changes his mind and he never renounces the communism he now comes to espouse. Sperber, at a loss to explain this sea-change, says half tongue-in-cheek how Marx surely ‘invented the working-class…from frustration with authoritarian Prussian rule’. This may be better than locating it in some pseudo-Freudian drama of his childhood, but not by far. Perhaps there will always be something inexplicable about the way different people, brought up in a similar environment, can develop utterly opposed outlooks and attitudes but in Marx’s case the seed of change was undoubtedly planted in Berlin and his discovery there of Hegel. Sperber, though, underplays Marx’s theoretical development from his enthusiasm  on first reading Hegel – ‘A curtain has fallen’ he writes to his father in 1837 – to the Economic and Philosophic  Manuscripts of  1844, the Communist Manifesto of 1847 and later Capital. 

One suspects Sperber has not read much Hegel nor warm to what he has digested, falling back on familiar pronouncements: Hegel’s ideas, we read, are ‘notoriously complex and convoluted ….arcane, vague, and terribly abstract’. This won’t wash if we seek to understand Marx’s intellectual breakthrough and how it springs from the Hegelian dynamic between the subject, the ‘I’, and the object, the world that seems to exist independently of the ‘I’.  Marx locates the dialectic in this interaction and a social, historical ontology is the philosophical and political consequence. Humankind is self-determining and what seems ‘given’ is always our creation and therefore capable of being changed in fundamental ways. 

Sperber, although this is never made explicit, seems puzzled by Marx’s importance and his achievement. He recognises his historical significance as a nineteenth-century figure, appreciates his dogged persistence as a radical thinker at odds with his society and shows a humane understanding of the difficulties and private tragedies he had to contend with in the course of his life but the biographer never connects with the enduring value and relevance of Marx’s work: 

The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course and it is time for a new understanding of him as a figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own: the age of the French Revolution, of Hegel’s philosophy, of the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it.

This is profoundly mistaken and Sperber has concluded too much from his historicist premise. Marx was not a prophet but his diagnosis of capitalism is more relevant today that any time since 1945. He belongs, of course, to  a past historical epoch and  many aspects of nineteenth-century capitalism have changed considerably in the interval but our economic system has not fundamentally shifted its foundations; the same predatory beast inhabits us today, benefiting some people at the cost of impoverishing many others. The age of the French Revolution may seem distant in Columbia, Missouri where Sperber lives but  it is hardly ‘increasingly distant’  to the millions of  citizens around the globe who gather and struggle to overthrow their governments in the belief that a more equal society is within their reach. And the political economy of the early period of English industrialization has reasserted itself vengefully since 2008, albeit now in the guise of a medicinal austerity. As for Hegel’s philosophy, never mind how dryly academic would be the work of Slavoj Zizek – the most radical and relevant cultural critic of our times – without the influence of Hegel, Sperber’s shortcoming is his failure to understand Hegel and, as a consequence, his inability to recognise Marx’s towering and enduring legacy. It was through Hegel that Marx came to identify capitalism as an historical and economic system, fundamentally different not only to what came before but also to what could come after it. As a totality, capitalism is all-embracing and affects our ways of thinking – our feelings and relationships, art, culture and politics – as well as how we earn a living and exist in the material world. But totality for Hegel was not a closed shop, wrapped up in some homogeneous and rational whole, far from it; what appears as a totality is riven by contradiction, driven by negativity, and Marx translated this constitutive antagonism into the workings of capitalism. This is his legacy and there should be no problem acknowledging the fact because what he laid bare is all around us now, just as it was in Marx’s lifetime. Brad Pitt speaks as a Marxist when, in that last tremendous scene of ­Killing Them Softly, he hears Obama on the television (‘to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that, out of many, we are one…) and retorts to his employer at the bar:

My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own.America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.

One is tempted to extract from this an epitaph for Ireland– ‘not a country. It’s just a business’ – though it serves more generally as a way of understanding capitalism.

Given his contention that Marx belongs purely to the past, a ‘backward-looking figure’, Sperber’s biography does not allow for such considerations but praise should be given for the story he does weave about his subject’s nineteenth-century life. While Part I deals with his younger years and early journalism, Part II starts from 1847 and ups the tempo as a revolutionary situation develops in Europeand Marx becomes a participant. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx is exiled and settles in London where he spends the rest of his life. The next decade is a gruelling one, isolated politically and personally, and suffering the death of children brings him and Jenny is the lowest ebb of their life. There are endless and often bitter sectarian disputes with émigré groups and Marx’s animus against Russialeads him into strange waters, claiming at one stage that the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is a paid agent of the Russian tsar. Sperber’s scholarship is impressive and he details a number of moments from his subject’s  life that reviewers have turned to, not in order not to demonise Marx — that’s old hat by now — but to reduce him to a fallible human being, a man of his times but no more than that. 

Sperber’s biography is admirable in many respects but right-wing readers and tame liberals will be pleased that a bogey man has finally been put in a nineteenth-century box from where he can do no harm; hence the praise of one particularly crass reviewer for what he calls a  ‘dogma-free biography’.  What is now needed is someone to write a companion volume, an intellectual biography that charts Marx’s life alongside the development of his ideas.




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