'Karl Marx' by Jonathan Sperber Jonathan Sperber
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
W.W. Norton, New York, 2013. 512pp., £25 hb
ISBN 9780871404671

Reviewed by David McLellan

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About the reviewer

David McLellan

David McLellan is Professor of Political Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London



This big new biography of Marx is good. Its author is a historian of nineteenth century Germany and his aim is to give a detailed account of Marx’s life that is firmly embedded in its historical context. Its underlying premise is that “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 biography is definitely, as the subtitle says, a nineteenth century life. As such – but only as such – this book is the best there is.

But why another biography of Marx? There are literally dozens available, Sperber, in his introduction, give us three reasons. First, and most obviously, there is the still on-going MEGA edition which aims to publish everything that Marx and Engels ever wrote. It includes, for example, not just Marx’s own letters but those written to him. Sperber asserts that these “small details subtly change our picture of him.” Second, Sperber claims that recent nineteenth century historical scholarship has downplayed the extent and significance of the industrial revolution and the resulting class conflict and emphasised the influence of eighteenth century political ideas, of religious belief, and of gender relations. Third, Sperber wishes to view Marx’s ideas very much in the context of his life. To understand Marx, for him, it is necessary not just to be familiar with his intellectual context but to see his ideas as deeply informed by his private life.

All three of these claims have a certain validity. The new material in MEGA does indeed bring to light hundreds of small details. But their combined impact is far too subtle to change our picture of Marx. At best, it does flesh it out a little. Again, pointing out that the upshot of recent historical scholarship “has been to delineate an era rather different from our own” is a statement of the rather obvious. And viewing Marx’s intellectual development in the context of his private life and his political/journalistic activity (which latter Sperber does very well) is not to relativize his ideas. Context does indeed help to understanding of such ideas but it does not prevent their relevance.

I will return at the end of this review to this basic question of what Sperber thinks – given his approach – is the point of reading Marx. But first a few more specific matters where Sperber’s account raises questions, many of which are indeed prompted by his enthusiasm for keeping Marx firmly in the nineteenth (and occasionally eighteenth) century. One example would be his claim that Marx’s reputation as a prophet of globalization is mis-placed, as the famous sentence beginning “All that is solid melts into air” is mistranslated. According to Sperber it should read: “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is deconsecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.” Sperber’s translation is indeed more accurate, but this does not bear the interpretation he puts on it – that Marx is here simply talking about the imminent over throw of the Prussian aristocracy by the German bourgeoisie. The surrounding paragraphs have a much wider import. Again, Sperber claims that a number of passages in the Communist Manifesto were taken almost verbatim from the writing of Eduard Gans whose lectures Marx had attended in Berlin ten years earlier. Sperber does quote one passage later on, but this interesting claim lacks specific reference. (Incidentally, Sperber is loath to refer to other treatments of Marx. It would sometimes have been illuminating to know where he differs from them. There is, for example, no mention – even in the extensive bibliography – to Mary Gabriel’s recent (2011) double biography of Karl and Jenny Marx. Despite its unpromising title of Love and Capital, it contains a wealth of detail). And his view that “the common twentieth – and twenty first – century situation in which capitalists employ workers to produce services rather than goods was outside Marx’s intellectual universe” will come as a surprise to those who are acquainted with the considerable literature devoted to Marx’s views on unproductive labour. Finally, when discussing employment opportunities open to socialists in the nineteenth century, Sperber says both that “by the 1860s, a gradual shift from prominent leftists as authors to left-wing lenders as functionaries of a political party was underway – an occupation that, for all its problems, was more secure and better paid than the thankless task of freelance writing” and also that, throughout Marx’s lifetime left-wing political parties “lacked the dues-paying mass membership to support full-time professional politicians.” The reader is left wondering which of these conflicting statements to believe.

While excellent on Marx’s journalism in the 1850s, Sperber is less good in clarifying Marx’s political ideas and activities. He spends what seems to be an inordinate amount of time detailing the intricacies of internecine refugee politics in London, his vendetta with Karl Vogt, his obsession with Palmerston. Ten whole pages are devoted to the 1872 Hague Congress of the International. At the same time he devotes comparatively little space to what Marx actually had to say in works generally recognised to be pivotal: his accounts of the Civil War in France and the Critique of the Gotha Programme are rather thin. Occasionally, this contextualising approach goes rather awry. Sperber does not make it clear enough that one of the reasons – indeed the main one – for Marx’s changing tact in the period 1848-52 is that he was addressing different audiences: as a newspaper editor he was concerned to support the radical wing of the bourgeoisie against the autocratic Prussian government. At the same time, the backbone of the Communist League, for whom Marx was the leading publicist, consisted of artisans. The former wanted, among other things, increased industrialization. But this was anathema to the latter as it would deprive them of their livelihood. This accounts for Marx’s undoubtedly ambivalent attitude to “communism” during this period. This lack of perspective in Sperber can lead to downright errors: when Marx says of communism in 1842 that “practical attempts [to introduce communism], even attempts en masse, can be answered with cannon”, Sperber comments that Marx “was advocating the use of the army to suppress a communist workers uprising”. Clearly Marx was advocating no such thing.

Sperber seems uneasy with the more philosophical aspects of Marx’s thought – or possibly he just thinks them largely irrelevant to his enterprise. For example, he gives us a page-long quotation from Marx’s classic summation of his materialist conception of history in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy, but little discussion of what it might mean or its validity – no mention, for example, of Cohen’s magisterial and controversial treatment which does not even figure in the (extensive) bibliography.

The above comments may sound rather negative. But they should be counterbalanced by the observation that Sperber is very impressive on other writings of Marx. He is excellent in his discussion of Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” and his account of the economics of the three volumes of Capital (and the difficulties therein) is one of the best summaries that I have come across. He is also very insightful – in spite of getting the date of their first meeting wrong, 1842 not 1844 – on the Marx/Engels relationship, both personal and intellectual. All this raises the fundamental question: what is the point of this book? Sperber himself addresses this question in his Introduction: “If Marx was not our contemporary, more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present, why should anyone write a new biography of him, or, once that biography exists, bother reading it?” the answer he gives is puzzling. On the one hand, he says that good historical writing (and his own is certainly an example of this) is worthwhile for its own sake. On the other hand, he is clearly not content with this antiquarianism and tells us that “it is precisely by perceiving the contrast between [the nineteenth] century and the present that the latter appears in its own distinct light. Seeing Marx in his contemporary context, not ours, helps illuminate our current situation and is one of the major intellectual virtues of a biography in the early decades of the twenty-first century”. This latter is rather sibylline – and it is difficult to see how Sperber’s book helps “illuminate our current situation”. All the more curious is that Sperber recently published in the Guardian (18 May 2013) a short article which mentions three ideas of Marx “capable of being developed in the present”. They are the idea that intellectual conceptions and political movements are closely tied to social structures and economic interests; that ostensibly free and voluntary market changes contain within themselves elements of domination and exploitation; and finally the idea that a capitalist market economy periodically enters periods of self-generated breakdown. If Sperber had managed to include more of this approach in his (in many ways excellent) biography, Marx would appear more relevant than his book would have us believe.

30 July 2013


Hans G. Despain wrote, on 2 Aug 2013 at 7:31pm:

David McLellan worries his commentary of Sperber’s book may be rather negative. Frankly, I believe McLellan to be overly praiseworthy. This is not to disagree with McLellan’s praise of the Sperber’s book. It is a very scholarly, well-researched, and very well written biography of Marx. Moreover, McLellan’s review is excellent and very fair review of the biography by Sperber.

As McLellan observes the chapters on Marx’s journalistic endeavors are especially impressive. In distinction to McLellan, I also believe Sperber to be excellent on Marx’s political activity, but in full agreement with McLellan merely useful for historical context of Marx’s political ideas. Sperber is sober and fair illustrating Marx’s personality and relationships with colleagues, adversaries, and family. However, Sperber cannot reconcile Marx’s personal cultural aspirations for his children (education, great literature, music, aesthetics) with Marx’s political condemnation of capitalism. This may reveal more of Sperber than it does of Marx.

However, I do take two exceptions concerning McLellan’s review. First a disagreement. McLellan claims Sperber’s “account of the economics of the three volumes of Capital (and the difficulties therein) is one of the best summaries that I have come across.” Sperber’s account is a decent place to start, but I hardly believe it among the best available.

The immanent critique of Sperber’s summary would unfold the fact that it draws too heavily from post-Marx critiques of his system, which seems to violate Sperber’s intention to keep Marx in his own historical context. Moreover, I am not sure Sperber understands the philosophical orientation informing and driving Capital, thus Sperber has a hidden or latent positivistic interpretation of Marx which does violence to Marx’s economics (thus, instead of summaries Marx, Sperber summaries critiques of Marxian economics). Sperber would not make my top twenty, indeed I would feel obligated to correct the misinterpretations of Sperber if someone were to begin with Marx’s economics via Sperber’s summary (at the end of this comment I provide a list of several alternative sources to mend McLellan’s overpraise of Sperber summary of Capital).

Second, if we can agree with McLellan there is some value placing Marx in historical and personal context, it also simultaneously does violence to Marx’s Universalist orientation. Marx believed he was working for something bigger than himself, for example a Universalist history and Universalist social theory. Thus for Sperber to claim we better understand Marx in his own historical context would be analogous to claiming we can better understand the theory of relativity by understanding Einstein in historical context, perhaps we understand how Einstein came to his discoveries, but not necessarily the theory's/science truths and falsehoods. What this reveals is that Sperber does not believe history and political economy to be scientific, in other words he is very much anti-naturalist (perfectly fine position to defend, but clearly not Marx!).

It is fine to dismiss Marxian Universalist/Naturalistic aspirations as Kantian/Hegelian hangovers, however, to do so is to fail to place Marx in his historical context, to understand how he would allow his own health and his family’s health to suffer for his search for Truth, Emancipation, and Justice.

Sperber completely fails to address this aspect of Marx. I suspect this again reveals more about Sperber than of Marx. My feeling of reading Sperber is that the philosophical orientation informing him is some version of pragmatism; nothing wrong with that except it was not Marx. To unconsciously impose pragmatism on Marx is to misunderstand him.

The result is to claim that Marx’s relevance for contemporary capitalism is highly circumvented. However, Marx himself believed he had understood the “hidden secret” or ‘depth realism’ of capitalism as a mode of production. Hence, Marx would have maintained his theories of capitalism would remain relevant as long as capitalism existed as a mode of production.

Two phenomena drove Marx’s political economy: poverty in the midst of plenty, i.e. socio-economic inequality, and economic crisis. Marxian economics remain highly relevant today because it is impressively capable of explaining the tendencies of the capitalist mode of production toward inequality and socio-economic (monetary) collapse/crisis. These capacities do not necessarily rest on “value theory”; falling rate of profit; or the transformation problem, but respectively Marx’s theories of exploitation and his Surplus analysis approach to political economy.

There are several reasons Sperber’s fails to capture this. First, he does not understand Marx’s political economy, this is forgivable in a biography. However, more importantly for the biography, he fails to appreciate Marx’s philosophical orientation and philosophical realism. Instead Sperber seems to interpret Marx as a pragmatist, and fails to address Marx’s Universalist orientation. He cannot make sense of Marx’s economics, nor understand its relevance, second he misunderstands Marx’s philosophy, and thirdly cannot reconcile Marx’s (and his Wife’s and Daughters) personal commitments and life choices because of this neglect of Marx’s philosophical commitments.

Sperber biography certainly has its merits. However, it does a particular violence to the relevance of Marxian economics and Marxian philosophy. Thus this biography needs serious scrutiny by Marxian scholars. We should praise Sperber's accomplishments, but also underscore his severe and violent shortcomings without apology. McLellan brilliantly underscores this point by contrasting Sperber’s Guardian article with his book. Sperber’s biography will not be the definitive biography of Marx post-MEGA, and to attempt to reduce Marx to his historical context and personality does violence to the historical, philosophical and scientific accomplishments of Marx.

[Now to return to the better sources for an introduction to Marxian economics, here are several other sources, all of which are far more sympathetic to Marx than is Sperber. Duncan Foley’s Understanding Capital; Paul Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development; Ernst Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory, George Catephores An Introduction to Marxist Economics; Meghnad Desai’s Marxian Economics; and perhaps the best of these longer monographs for an introduction, David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital, which can be accompanied with corresponding lectures for every chapter from David Harvey free online (granted these are not mere summaries, but monographs)].

[Some excellent short summaries would include Maurice Dobb’s chapter on Marx in his Theories of Value and Distribution since Adam Smith; E. K. Hunt’s chapter on Marx in his History of Economic Thought; Geert Reuten’s article “Karl Marx: His Work and the Major Changes in its Interpretation” in A Companion to The History of Economic Thought; Duncan Foley’s chapter three of Adam’s Fallacy; Ernesto Screpanti and Stefano Zamagni’s chapter on Marx in their An Outline of the History of Economic Thought; Alessandro Roncaglia’s chapter on Marx in his The Wealth of Ideas; Sackrey, Schneider, and Knoedler, chapter 3 of their Introduction to Political Economy; Samuel Hollander’s chapter on Marx in Classical Economics; and perhaps the best summary available is from Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick chapter 4 of their Contending Economic Theories (see my review of this book in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, July 1 2013)].

sarban wrote, on 3 Aug 2013 at 10:26am:

Apropos Hans G. Despain's useful comments, Marx's universalism was of a particular kind. We do find in Marx a system of general categories or concepts that can be used in the study of a variety of social formations, but we do not find in him generalisations applicable to all societies. The law of motion of capital that he discovered was true only for societies based on a system of generalised commodity production and wage-labour; it cannot be extrapolated to other social formations. The key concept in Marx remains the mode of production, which determines the character of a social formation, historical epoch and conjuncture. All generalisations must be restricted to a specific mode of production and the social formation based on it. Marx's analysis of capitalism will hold till this system lasts.

Hans G. Despain wrote, on 3 Aug 2013 at 1:08pm:

Sarban, you are correct, but overstated. The two most general theories of Marx, namely dialectics and historical materialism are not merely particular to capitalism. Otherwise, I completely accept the principles of Capital are particular to capitalism.

My point concerning Sperber's book is that the world today is more capitalistic, not less. It makes little difference to say that it less competitive, or markets are circumvented by powerful corporations. This is because the relationship between producers/workers and their supervisors/managers/capitalists is essentially the same, if not intensified (even in mainstream we have Robert Reich calling contemporary capitalism, "Supercapitalism"). We are still in the world of Marxian economics. Marx cannot be reduced to history of economic thought, it is topical and the explanatory power is strong. Sperber's book wants to deny this. It is offensive to a Marxist, but more important it should be offensive to a social scientist, because it obscures truth and knowledge, but it should also be offensive to those suffering the exploitation of capitalism and its crisis-ridden nature, in other words all human beings. On this account Sperber's book is a disservice.

Marx as a man, I think Sperber is correct to point out, was more or less rather ordinary in his daily actions and as a political leader he was leading a rather small segment of radicals. Moreover, as Sperber points out even Marx's leadership was in dispute with others, and his personality quirks often made Marx a rather weak political leader. But even if we accept this, it does not make Marx's theories in political economy, politics, history, sociology, psychology, etc. obsolete. This is the overall flavor or thesis of Sperber's book, which is articulated in the critical comments of McLellan's review (although I believe somewhat understated). This is a fatal flaw of an otherwise impressive biography. It is fatal because the aim to relativize Marx's theories allows Sperber to use Post-Marx critiques of Capital to denounce Capital. How could Sperber have been so sloppy? It reveals more of Sperber, than Marx.

Now, returning to dialectics. The movement in Hegelian and Marxian economics is from experience or Singularity, to the Particular or historical events, to Universal. Now we cannot always fully make the movement to Universal. (Hegel is quite brilliant demonstrating in philosophy the movement takes on all kinds of variations S-P-U or U-P-S or P-U-S, Hegel's interest is how human beings tap into Universalism, well this was Kant's interest too, although he ends up denying philosophical and scientific access). However, Marx certainly has both the desire and attempt to achieve universalism. This does not make capitalism and its movement universal, they are not (and this should be accounted as one of Marx's great achievements, along with the insight that capitalism would not be the "end of history," nor constitute the "last man"). The movements or "laws" of capitalism are always merely particular to a society whereby Surplus Value is created by one group, usurped and distributed by another, and Marx says this is the 'hidden core' of capitalism (by the way this definition makes both former Soviet Union and current China capitalistic, and perhaps more capitalistic than in the U.S./U.K. because U.S./U.K. have small businesses owned by families/employees who usurp and distribute their own Surplus Value). However, Marx's notions of human nature, i.e. the relationship between social institutions and human development are more universal. His belief in Truth, Emancipation, and Justice, also must confront universalism.

By the way, Sperber does quote Marx in a letter to Engels complaining that a man living a life for universalism should not have the particular pressures caused by family life. Sperber did not recognize this as a Hegelian comment because Sperber has no understanding of Hegelian philosophy, with the wave of the hand, or the claim it would take another book to explain, Sperber simply skips any attempt to explain the philosophy informing Marx's construction of social theory and political economy. Instead Sperber's focus and strength is on the petty disputes between Marx and his friends and Marx and his adversaries on the one hand, and a rather strong factual explanations of the words and historical events in Marx's more political writings, but Sperber has little understanding of Marx's social theories because it requires some understanding of Marx's philosophy.

In any event, even if someone wants to abandon Marx's universalism, this by itself does not make Marx's theories in Capital obsolete. Marx's political economy and Marxian economics both still have remarkable explanatory power as a theory of capitalism, and it still out performs alternatives in many dimensions.

sarban wrote, on 4 Aug 2013 at 1:54pm:

Thanks Hans.

A theory - if it is a theory and not merely an empirical generalisation - is tied to as well as transcends its contextual location. In other words, it is both abstract and concrete. Marxian theory, the materialist conception of history, is of this nature. Marx does offer us a system of general categories in terms of which any social formation can be studied and analysed, but he offers no trans-historical generalisations. He told Vera Zasulich as much.

On the other hand, as opposed to empiricism, in the dialectical comprehension of reality the movement is always from the abstract to the concrete and not vice versa. As Jairus Banaji explains in his brilliant paper 'From commodity to capital: Hegel's dialectic in Marx's Capital',
'In the Preface to the first edition (1867) of Capital 1, Marx writes that in the analysis of "economic forms", i.e of social phenomena as such, the "power of abstraction" must replace a directly experimental, hence empirical, relation to the object... The concrete is derived by stages from the abstract.' The paper appears in 'Value: The representation of labour in capitalism' ed. by Diane Elson (CSE Books).

Barry Healy wrote, on 20 Aug 2013 at 5:07am:

Sperber’s book is a curate’s egg; good in parts, which, renders it bad in total. He is a more than competent researcher, but he is annoying in the way in which he deploys the nuggets that he unearths.

Marx and Engels were active in an intense political circle that merged from legality into conspiracy. Personal and political differences abounded. Marx and Engels gossiped outrageously about others in their milieu and others gossiped about them.

Sperber has the irritating habit of retailing any derogatory gossip aimed at Marx and Engels as fact while counting instances of their private chatter as proof of their foolishness.

His basic argument is that Marxism is a hopelessly nineteenth century philosophical oddity and that Marxism can’t be extracted from its historical period. Anyone adhering to Marxism is guilty of anachronistic folly, ignorantly transposing antiquated ideas forward into this century.

However, he also claims that Marx’s ideas were responsible for all the crimes of Stalin, which is exactly the anachronism of which he accuses others.

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Source: Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Accessed 15 April 2014
URL: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2013/803

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