Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

In his introduction to Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Jonathan Sperber stresses that he doesn’t believe Marx was a prophet or that he has much to say to our age at all. He is a historical figure who was acting in a specific context, and his thoughts should be understood that way.

And so the reader might reasonably ask: Why bother reading a 570-page biography?

Well, Sperber assures us that he has opened up new sources, retranslated misunderstood passages and besides, it is a Good Thing to understand the past. Sperber is not wrong, but casual readers might want to read a good account of Europe’s mid-19th century revolutions before taking the plunge. Familiarity with German philosophy would also be helpful.

These caveats aside, if you do want to read a book about Marx, then Sperber’s tome is comprehensive, well-written and well-argued. Of course, that very comprehensiveness can be a problem because Marx’s life was pretty boring. He was a flop as a revolutionary leader and spent much of his life in a chair, writing, reading, picking at boils, or firing off begging letters to Friedrich Engels. Much energy was wasted on squabbles with long-forgotten rivals. For me, the narrative picked up when Marx was forced to move to London; here Sperber’s evocation of the revolutionary’s poverty and desperation are particularly vivid.

But given that so much has already been written about Marx, does Sperber offer anything that is genuinely fresh? Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is its dogged pursuit of the middle path. Books on Marx written by his acolytes advance the line that their prophet managed, by some astounding act of metaphysical perception, to uncover eternal laws of history via the act of staring very hard at reports on 19th-century English factory conditions that were already out of date when he found them. Anti-Marxists seek to tie him to the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et al.

Sperber resists both approaches and judges Marx exclusively by his peers. For example, Marx had a child whom he never acknowledged by his maidservant—a clear case of hypocrisy and exploitation. Anti-Marxists love this fact; pro-Marxists are embarrassed by it. Sperber compares Marx to Engels, who took two sisters as lovers, and to other socialists who contracted diseases from dalliances with prostitutes.

In this context, Marx emerges as a fairly typical 19th-century bourgeois hypocrite, less odious than some others. Well, maybe, but Sperber’s search for nuance in Marx’s anti-Semitic essay “On the Jewish Question” was, for this reader, less persuasive.

By the end, Sperber’s version of Marx is so rooted in the 19th century and so misunderstood by his disciples that it is difficult to understand why anybody ever felt the need to kill millions in the name of his economic philosophy. Sperber finds his explanation for Marx’s appeal in his “passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and intransigent nature.” Anyone who has read Stalin’s ultra-dry writings on dialectical materialism or Lenin’s obsessive harping on the dictatorship of the proletariat might doubt this.

Indeed, I would suggest that Marx’s appeal was and is rooted in his secularized millenarian fantasy of a future paradise on earth, his simplistic moral condemnation of capitalism, the seductiveness of a pseudoscientific theory of everything couched in intimidating theoretical language, and his overt will to power. All of these things transcend time and will continue to do so for as long as people are tempted to plow through Marx’s dense prose. Perhaps, in the admirable pursuit of detail, Sperber saw a lot of trees, but inadvertently missed the wood.

From the Dallas Morning News

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