Book review: Karl Marx: A 19th-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

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The Karl Marx depicted in Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing, meticulously researched biography will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics.

Karl Marx: A 19th-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

WW Norton, 512pp, £25

Here is a man never more passionate than when attacking his own side, saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene, living in rooms that some might call bohemian, others plain slummy, and who can be maddeningly inconsistent when not lapsing into elaborate flights of theory and unintelligible abstraction.

So inflated and elevated is the global image of Marx that it’s unsettling to encounter a genuine human being, a character one might come across today. If the Marx described by Sperber were around in 2013, he would be a compulsive blogger, and picking Twitter fights with Andrew Sullivan and Naomi Klein.

But that’s cheating. Sperber’s aim here is to relocate Marx where he lived and belonged – in his own time, not ours. We travel with Marx from his hometown, Trier, via student carousing in Bonn and Berlin, to his debut in political journalism in Cologne and on to exile and revolutionary activity in Paris, Brussels and London. We see his thought develop, but glimpse also the begging letters to his mother, requesting an advance on his inheritance, along with the enduring anxiety over whether he can provide for the wife he has loved since he was a teenager. We hear of the sleepless nights that follow the start of the American Civil War: Marx is troubled not by the fate of the Union, but by the loss of freelance income from the New York Tribune, which, consumed by matters closer to home, no longer requires his services as a European correspondent.

The picture that emerges is a rounded, humane one. Marx is committed to revolution, without being a monomaniac. He is an intensely loving father, playing energetically with his children and later grandchildren, but also suffering what would now be diagnosed as a two-year depression following the death of his eight-year-old son Edgar. He is clearly also an infuriating colleague, capable of spending 12-hour days in the reading room of the British Museum but stewing on book projects for years, only to fail to deliver.

Besides the devoted marriage to Jenny, there is another love story here: the partnership with Engels, who it seems was prepared to do anything for his comrade. Engels was Aaron to Marx’s Moses, able to speak in public and so make up for the deficiencies of his partner, who was burdened by both a strong Rhineland accent and a lisp.

All this is fascinating enough, but it has extra value. The act of reclaiming Marx as a man of his time alters the way we understand his ideas. Plenty of scholars sweated through the 20th century trying to reconcile inconsistencies across the sweep of Marx’s writing. Sperber accepts that Marx was not a body of ideas, but a human being responding to events. In this context, it’s telling that Marx’s prime vocation was not as an academic but as a campaigning journalist: Sperber suggests Marx’s two stints at the helm of a radical paper in Cologne represented his greatest periods of professional fulfillment. Accordingly, much of what the scholars have tried to brand as Marxist philosophy was instead contemporary commentary, reactive and therefore full of contradiction.

Thus in 1848 Marx could make a speech denouncing as “nonsense” the very idea of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, even though that notion formed a core plank of Marxist doctrine. The old Communist academicians used to insist the text of that speech must have been a forgery, but Sperber believes in its authenticity. Marx delivered it to a Rhineland audience then demanding the broadest possible front against authoritarian Prussian rule. Pitting one Rhenish class against another made no sense in that place at that time, so “Marx repudiated his own writing.” The book makes clear that, determined though Marx was to devise an overarching theory of political economy, he was forever preoccupied with German politics and fuelled by a lifelong loathing of Prussian despotism. Whatever he wrote in the abstract was informed by the current and concrete.

Sperber forces us to look anew at a man whose influence lives on. And he also offers a useful template for how we might approach other great figures, especially the great thinkers, of history – demystifying the words and deeds of those who too often are lazily deemed sacred. For all the books that have been written about America’s founding fathers, for example, we still await the historian who will do for them what Jonathan Sperber has done for Karl Marx.