Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
W.W. Norton, New York, 2013. 512pp., £25 hb
Reviewed by 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