Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

Sheila Rowbotham on a crisp portrait of a restless thinker who was neither infallible nor prophetic

April 25, 2013

I once caused shock and distress when lecturing to a group of trade unionists from South Korea by mentioning that Karl Marx had had an illegitimate son, Freddy Demuth. I tried to reassure them by saying that Demuth became a respectable Labour movement figure who helped to found the Hackney Labour Party, but to no avail. The impact of Marx’s ideas has led the man himself to be presented as either flawless and all-knowing, or deluded and demonic. Jonathan Sperber’s magnificent, scholarly biography cuts through the dichotomies by examining Marx in the context of his times.

The author is able to draw on a wealth of knowledge about 19th-century European, and specifically German, history. He dwells in some detail on Marx’s Jewish family in Trier, explaining the pressure on them to assimilate, as well as the obstacles faced by Marx’s father, Heinrich, a man influenced by Enlightenment thought.

Two lifelong characteristics are apparent early on; young Karl was unable to manage his finances and had difficulty in finishing one piece of work before starting another. His exasperated father wrote to him protesting about his overspending, asking sardonically, “how can a man who every week or two invents new [philosophical] systems, and must tear up the old…descend to petty matters?” Heinrich was even more anxious about his son’s tendency to busy himself “hunting up the shadow of learnedness” rather than focusing on lectures and exams.

By placing Marx firmly in his 19th-century setting, Sperber shows that it was by no means preordained that Marx would become a communist

Sperber shows how Marx’s association with the iconoclastic and irreverent Young Hegelians blighted any hopes of an academic career as the political ethos in Germany became more conservative. He brings out the characters of figures such as Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose misfortune it has been to be remembered largely through Marx’s scathing critiques of their ideas. The attack on Max Stirner, who argued that egoism should be the basis of ethics, became particularly obsessive. If Marx had known how Stirner’s ideas would echo in anarchist circles in the late 19th century, influencing Nietzsche, the artistic avant-garde, syndicalists and the extreme right, the fulminations in Marx’s The German Ideology would no doubt have been even more lengthy.

Karl Marx reveals the daunting scope of a man familiar with the Classics, who studied philosophy, history, literature and economics as well as the nascent disciplines of anthropology and sociology that were emerging during his lifetime. Marx’s restless intellect extended to science and bounded off into geology and theories of evolution. What an appalling headache he would have been for the research excellence framework!

Sperber’s knowledge of German history enables him to elaborate well on Marx’s journalism on the Rhineland News and then on the New Rhineland News, revealing how Marx took extensive notes and read far more than was necessary. After the 1848 revolutions, Marx would write for the anti- slavery radicals Horace Greeley and Charles Anderson Dana, on the New-York Tribune and, as capitalism flourished, adopted some contorted Machiavellian arguments. Sperber shows how Marx’s intractable opposition to Russia and his suspicion of the motives of Lord Palmerston led him into an uneasy alliance with the eccentric David Urquhart - an enthusiastic supporter of the Ottoman Empire.

Sperber is most interesting on the sectarian disputes and paranoia pervading the émigré milieu that Marx inhabited in London. Marx’s attacks on his opponents are notoriously abrasive, while his correspondence with Engels is full of acrimonious comments about political associates. Sperber is, however, carefully judicious, explaining how those targeted often responded in kind. Isolation, defeat and powerlessness encouraged suspicion. Marx was no exception; in some cases he was to be proved right about the presence of police agents, although he trusted the Austrian spy, Janos Bangya.

Karl Marx portrays a man who was sharply perceptive while being, in both his life and in his ideas, capable of contradictory blind spots. By placing Marx firmly in his 19th-century setting, Sperber shows that it was by no means preordained that Marx would become a communist. Indeed, the man who wrote the Communist Manifesto and supported the revolutions of 1848 had, only six years earlier, advocated using cannon against insurrection. A fascinating question raised in the biography is one that Marx himself recognised in his own theorising but also relates to the choices he made in his own life. Why do some individuals come to break with their own social and economic interests to support the cause of others? Marx was troubled by the implications of his choices for his beloved wife Jenny and his family, but he persisted through poverty, illness and the tragic, painful deaths of his children.

I smiled at Sperber’s throwaway comment that feminists have not embraced Marx. In fact, Marx has had a profound effect on socialist feminism in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and even North America over the past few decades. We read Marx critically but took much from him. Many of us also placed him in a historical context, finding out how he had influenced women’s movements for emancipation globally, as well as how he failed to assimilate insights existing within the maligned utopian strands of socialism of his own times. Certain people within these movements, including the women who participated in the 1848 revolutions for example, evinced a greater alertness to the material circumstances of domestic labour and to the powerful psychological hold of male-defined dominant ideas and customs.

Sperber gives us a Marx who was neither infallible in his contemporary judgements nor “entirely prophetic” in his forecasts. However, it is not necessary to regard Marx as a source of revelatory doctrine to mine his writing for challenging questions. Indeed, two key tensions in Marx’s political and social thought mentioned in this biography resonate for the contemporary social movements demanding rights, social justice and an alternative economy. One is the dual emphasis on furthering democratic revolution while seeking to secure the power of the working class. The second is Marx’s ambivalence about the ideal future. Was it to be characterised by extensive leisure or by deeply fulfilling work for all?

Sperber rightly dismisses many of Marx’s obsessions. But some of his apparently abstruse preoccupations, such as his loathing for Stirner, can signal continuing dilemmas for radicals who challenge established customs and moral systems.

This biography sees Sperber follow the historical Marx with consummate skill, but he seems perplexed by the impact of Marx. He succeeds well in conveying Marx the mighty and Marx the petty with superb erudition and impressive clarity. He does not, however, communicate the intellectual excitement surrounding a man who has been reinvented by several generations since his death and who will undoubtedly be recreated by future ones. Surely it is possible to recognise great thinkers in their own times as historical figures and consider their ideas in relation to the present. We do this after all with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau and Mill. Why not with Marx?

The author

“I was born and grew up in New York City. As an adult, I have lived mostly in the Midwest, so you might say that I am a defrocked New Yorker,” says Jonathan Sperber, professor of modern European history at the University of Missouri.

“I live in Columbia, Missouri, with my wife Nancy Katzman and our two cats. Our son, Adam, is currently an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (near Chicago), so he is not around at home quite so much any more.

“Columbia is a very pleasant small city, with a low cost of living, easy access to nature and a relatively slow pace of life. Sometimes these positive features can also be a little annoying.

“When I first came to Columbia in 1984, it was very much a college town, but I would say that over the years it has evolved into a small Midwestern city. The university, although of course still very important, no longer has the dominant place it once did. Other forms of employment have gained significance. There is what I call the ‘sickness and death business’ - Columbia has a number of hospitals and a large concentration of medical practices and medical laboratories. Insurance and finance are also important: the city is the corporate headquarters of an important regional insurance company and regional headquarters of a national insurance company. We have even had a little high-tech business - a remote service center of IBM has recently come here.

“Along with the city’s economic evolution has come its cultural evolution: more and better restaurants and retail establishments, an increasingly lively arts scene, including music and cinema, as well as the representational arts, not necessarily tied to the university. If the university does not loom quite so large as it once does, these other branches of enterprise generally involve a well-educated labour force, so Columbians have been persistent supporters of education, and higher education in particular. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for the state of Missouri in general,” Sperber observes.

Asked about his early years, Sperber recalls, “I was quite the studious child, encouraged in that direction by my parents, who were very much petit bourgeois with educational aspirations. Both attended New York City’s municipal colleges, my father in night school over many years. They both had corresponding jobs: my mother as a schoolteacher, my father as a municipal employee involved in financial auditing.

“As an undergraduate, I attended Cornell University, one of the less prestigious of the Ivy League colleges, which has always been a site of social upward mobility for young people from working-class and lower-middle-class families in the New York City area. In my day such young people were mostly Jewish; today they are mostly Asian. In spite of my undergraduate involvement with both the 1960s counterculture and student radicalism (this was toward the end of the era of the Vietnam War), I did have aspirations toward a university career. At first, it was in mathematics, but I later switched to the study of central European history.”

Sperber carried out postgraduate study at the University of Chicago, where he studied with the “unjustly forgotten” historian Leonard Krieger. Krieger was, he says, “an unusually profound thinker and scholar; his great work, The German Idea of Freedom, remains an intellectual tour de force. As a dissertation adviser, he supported my work and guided it in some very promising directions, although my interests in social history were very far from his.

“Like many historians, I have always had aspirations to write for a broader audience. Previous attempts to write scholarly monographs with a broader appeal - to use the language of the music industry, ‘crossover works’ - have not been too successful. Textbooks do have larger sales, but they are textbooks. So I very much enjoyed the challenges involved in writing a work based on historical scholarship, but in lively prose understandable and enjoyable for the general reader, and brought out by a trade publisher. Although I am not sure if I will write a biography again, my future plans do centre on this sort of historical writing designed for a general, educated readership.”

Of his goals in writing this book, Sperber says, “the point of my biography is to remove Marx from the 20th century/Cold War era binary opposition, in which he was either a keen analyst of capitalism and prophet of human emancipation, or an evil forerunner of totalitarian dictatorship and a deluded enemy of the free market. This latter, hostile attitude is still very widespread in the US. Describing Marx as a 19th-century figure, I think, makes it easier to consider his ideas.

“Most past biographies of Marx have tended either to idealise or to demonise him - the former the attitude of Marxists, the latter of anti-communists. (There are exceptions, such as the long-term standard Marx biography by David McClellan, an excellent work.) I have tried to write a biography that is neither an idealisation nor a demonisation, both often understood in contemporary terms, but a work that puts Marx in his historical context,” he notes.

To his surprise, Sperber recently found himself discussing Karl Marx (and the thinker’s apparently undergraduate-like fondness for procrastination and alcohol) on the popular US TV programme The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“I was astonished when I found out that I would appear on The Daily Show. Doing the show was a blast. Jon Stewart is a wonderful performer, who is also very good at guiding a conversation and putting his guests at ease. He has an excellent staff that prepared me very carefully for my appearance. The Daily Show is very popular among US intellectuals and academics; my colleagues, friends and acquaintances (to say nothing of the university administration, and even my students) were very pleased at my appearance.”

Of his non-academic pastimes, Sperber says: “I like to go to the movies and to hear live jazz. For exercise, I run long distances, 15 to 25 miles per week. When I have the time, I like to read works of fiction, both serious literature and genre fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction. I have even taught classes on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. From Tolkien’s point of view, one could say that I have written a life of Sauron.”

Karen Shook

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

By Jonathan Sperber
W.W. Norton, 512pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780871404671
Published 3 May 2013

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