‘Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life’ reviewed by David McLellan

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

W.W. Norton, New York, 2013. 512pp., £25 hb
ISBN 9780871404671

Reviewed by David McLellan

About the reviewer

David McLellan is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, University of Kent and Fellow of …


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.

2 August 2013


  1. 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)].

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. The truth is, Sperber does not know what he’s talking about. He thinks people have got it wrong in seeing Marx as a thinker with ideas that help us understand today. But with one exception he does not analyse what those ideas are, and why they have no relevance. The exception is when he tries to knock down those famous lines in the Communist Manifesto about capitalism making “all that is sacred profane”, all that is solid vanish into thin air….Just a bad translation, says Sperber. Yawn. Educate yourself about Historical Materialism, Sperber. Marx has famous proposals about how economics determines politics and to some extent culture. Sperber doesn’t engage with them. Doesn’t tell us if they are right or wrong. How boring and superficial. It’s like writing off Einstein with no idea what the Theory of Relativity is about. Marx is worth studying only as a man of the past, like Bismarck or Garibaldi, says Sperber. Well…We study Bismarck and Garibaldi because they helped create our present. And so did Marx. And Sperber has not engaged with how he did so, what were the big ideas he launched that did change the world. Sperber has some useful details on Marx’s life, but he’s a biographer who does not understand what Marx was about.

  7. David McCllelan notes: “…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.”

    Need one say more? Sperber’s book, to be blunt, is wasting our time.

  8. Barry Healy notes :

    “[Sperber’s] basic argument is that Marxism is a hopelessly nineteenth century philosophical oddity and that Marxism can’t be extracted from its historical period.”

    And what are the alternatives, pray?

    ” Anyone adhering to Marxism is guilty of anachronistic folly, ignorantly transposing antiquated ideas forward into this century.”

    We’ll take our chance on that.

  9. The irony with Sperber is that when declaring Marx obsolete he doesn’t realise how much his own perceptions of society and history are owed to Marx, one of the founders of sociology and economics. Make that comedy as well as irony.

  10. Nobody in the West is obliged to take Marx seriously anyway. By all means declare him obsolete in the style of Sperber. See where the non-Marxist ideas get you in explaining the world. Marx will be just fine.

    The truth is, Sperber has not done his homework. He thinks people have got it wrong in seeing Marx as a thinker with ideas that help us understand today. But with one exception he does not analyse what those ideas are, and why they have no relevance. The exception is when he tries to knock down those famous lines in the Communist Manifesto about capitalism making “all that is sacred profane”, all that is solid vanish into thin air….This does not catch the dynamic of capitalism, but is just a bad translation, says Sperber. But Marx even on Sperber’s showing at least inspired the line which did give us this essential insight ! He should educate himself about Historical Materialism. Marx has famous proposals about how economics determines politics and to some extent culture. Sperber doesn’t engage with them. He doesn’t tell us if they are right or wrong. It’s like writing off Einstein with no idea what the Theory of Relativity is about. Marx is worth studying only as a man of the past, like Bismarck or Garibaldi, says Sperber. But we study Bismarck and Garibaldi because they helped create our present. And so did Marx. And Sperber has not engaged with how he did so, with the big ideas he launched that did change the world. Sperber has some useful details on Marx’s life, but he’s a biographer who does not understand what Marx was about.

  11. In the article referred to by David McLellan which Sperber published on 16th May 2013 (i.e., after he published his book writing Marx off as on obsolete thinker of the nineteenth century), Sperber says among other things:

    “Is Karl Marx still relevant? He lived in the 19th century, an era very different from our own, if also one in which many of the features of today’s society were beginning to take shape. A consideration of the relevance of Marx’s ideas in the early 21st century might start with separating their outdated elements from those capable of development in the present.
    Three [of the latter] come to mind.

    One is the idea that intellectual conceptions and the political movements embodying them are closely tied to social structures and collective economic interests. Marx referred to the latter as the “base” and the former as the “superstructure”; one does not have to agree with this metaphor or with the priority it implies to see that it is a fruitful conception. He first developed this line of analysis to explain different forms of royalism in France during the 1840s, but contemporary politics, with its clash of strongly different political visions all too evidently tied to economic interests or to social groups can be understood in this way as well. The recent US presidential elections, with their rhetoric of the “1%” and the “47%” (the proportion of the population Mitt Romney claimed didn’t pay taxes) are a good example, as is the debate about austerity politics in the UK and in the EU, phrased in terms of government debt, although really about which social groups will bear the costs of economic restructuring.
    Second, ostensibly free and voluntary market exchanges contain within themselves elements of domination and exploitation…in view of the results of three decades of public policy exalting market exchanges, and ignoring their negative consequences, we might want to take Marx’s insight more seriously…

    Finally, the understanding that a capitalist market economy was not an automatically self-regulating system; rather, it periodically entered periods of self-generated breakdown. Marx called these periods “crises”; today, we use a gentler term, “recessions”. The most recent of these, beginning in 2007-08, deserves the older sobriquet, in view of its severity, persistence and global impact.
    In Das Kapital, Marx offers a number of explanations for the recurrence of these crises. The most interesting comes from his time as a business and financial correspondent for the New York Tribune in the 1850s, then the world’s largest newspaper. In discussing the crisis of 1857, generally regarded as the first worldwide recession, Marx focused on the policies of Crédit Mobilier, the world’s first investment bank. He noted, appalled, that the bank’s statutes allowed it to borrow up to 10 times its capital. It then used the funds to purchase shares or fund IPOs of French railroad and industrial corporations, greatly increasing output. But when no purchasers were found for the expanded production, the bank discovered that the stocks it had bought had fallen in value, making it difficult to repay its loans. Replace Crédit Mobilier with Lehman Brothers or the Anglo Irish Bank, and French railroad and industrial firms with Nevada or Irish real estate, and we have a fair picture of a major cause of the recent financial unpleasantness…For specific policy suggestions, the more recent figures might be more helpful. But Marx’s insights of the 19th century still offer interesting ways to think about the 21st.”

    If even a determined debunker has to pay him this tribute one has to confess an obsolete thinker who was born two centuries ago has done exceedingly well !To use the old Jewish joke, with debunkers like Sperber who needs admirers?

  12. Many thanks to Bert Brech, 13 Aug 2018 @3:19 pm for headsup re summat I’d have elsewise missed, and which fits nicely with other stuff ongoing for me.

    It’s hard to imagine a book title which is more surely the equivalent of inserting a Glock in mouth with chambered round and squeezing the trigger.

    ‘A Nineteenth-Century Life’ FFS! What does this tell us? OK, so KM lived, worked and died in the C19th. Do we (whoever is ‘we’) know what constitutes this category? As a descriptive box it contains, just for starters: Hegel, Darwin, Feuerbach, G Eliot, the James bros, Daguerre, Faraday, John S Mill, Bagehot, Jacob Riis, Eveleen Myers, Nietzsche, Robert Owen, Frederick Douglass, Helena Blavatsky, John Brown and so on and on and on. Any of these could have have biogs with that frivolous piece of trainspottery. But who would bother? No-one, because of the lack of the strategic imperative to alienate Marx’s project (the transition to a post-cap societal order ) from time-present.

    David McLellan’s review does a neat ‘English-job’ of sliding in the shiv whilst lulling the victim with honeyed wine. But there seems to me to be a couple of problems in his review:

    1) In para 6:
    ‘he [Sperber] 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*.’
    Other than in the trivial sense of being canonical: why is this work – whose most conspicuous feature is the absence of the term and concept of class-war – ‘classic’ ?

    A powerful answer is given by Arthur M Prinz, full txt here:

    David McLellan has previously dismissed Prinz’s argument, for brief discussion of this see


    Either Prinz’s work should be refuted, or shown to have been, or its argument must be accepted and the cosy 1859 Preface de-canonised.

    2) In para 7
    ‘ Sperber is very impressive on other writings of Marx. He is excellent in his discussion of Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”.’

    Leaving aside the questionable title here ascribed to this important work of KM … what is so impressive re Sperber here ? I realise that the review is 5 years old, but given the resurgence of left anti-semitism amongst the Corbynites, some comment from the author might be welcomed.

    Finally, on some of the comments:

    @ Despain, 3 August 2013 @ 8:40am
    para 9

    ‘Two phenomena drove Marx’s political economy: poverty in the midst of plenty, i.e. socio-economic inequality ‘

    This is just plain wrong, for a brief refutation of the liberalist notion that KM was concerned with equality/inequality see

    c 80% down page for joint rev by David Murray & Mark Neocleous of Callinicos’ *Equality*

    @Bert Brech, 13 August 2018, @3:19 pm
    A similar absorbtion of Marx into left liberalism is made by this fatuous remark:
    ‘Marx, one of the founders of sociology and economics’.
    Does it still have to be explained that the project of Sociology was an anti-communist one? See Zeitling’s book, and various papers by Perry Andersen.

    For an unqualifiedly adulatory review of Sperber’s odious work, see Jonathan Freedland’s savage piece in the *New York Times*. The virtue of this review is that it shows the level of personal abuse which the defenders of “civilised values” take as a given (it makes the ad hominem attacks of Roger Scruton and of Paul Johnson look …. nearly civil !):


    For my own comment on this toryfilth in guardianista garb, see


  13. A useful review of Sperber’s book is provided in the LRB:
    Richard J. Evans, “Marx v. The Rest”, London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 10, 23 May 2013.

    Let’s face it, most Marxists never had much of a clue about the lives of Marx and Engels anyway, nor an interest in probing deeply into the subject, never mind understanding why doing so is important!

    It is true, that recent biographies – by Tristam Hunt, Sperber and Stedman-Jones etc. – are all rightwing books, written by conservatives who have a chip on their shoulder, a bee in their bonnet, or an personal axe to grind.

    The left-wing biographies (e.g. Mehring, Cornu, Korsch, Nicolaevsky) are not much different though, except that their values and sympathies are different. The Marxist academics build their empires too, and try to channel research efforts and funding into areas reflecting their own biases, tastes and predilections.

    There doesn’t exist a fully satisfactory biography of Marx and Engels yet. It would require a rare combination of qualities and skills:

    *a genuine and understanding empathy with these characters, but also a critical eye, to grasp their real motivations, and to grasp the life circumstances which provided them with the means for their strivings;
    *Personal experience of the rich diversity and complexity of life, in all its forms and guises;
    *scrupulous and critical attention to the factual evidence in the historical record, with access to all the relevant sources;
    *a thorough grasp of the historical context within which their lives unfolded;
    *a comprehensive mastery of the collected writings of Marx and Engels;
    *an excellent understanding of the scientific, political, intellectual and personal concerns of these men;
    *endurance, patience and perseverance in the pursuit of research and writing;
    *the ability to tell a clear, objective and comprehensible story, in such a way, that it would convincingly explain why their lives and ideas evolved in the way that they did;
    *the ability to weigh up these lives in the scales of history, with appropriate relativizations and questions, so that praise and blame for their achievements (or the lack of them) is allotted in a fitting and erudite way.

    Yet, any new biographer without all these characteristics in his/her CV ought to be credited at least for trying, and for providing readers with new facts, insights and connections.

    David McLellan provided one of the first modern biographies of Marx, that is not a hagiography and closely based on facts. Marxist believers might object, that McLellan is a Catholic believer, or that his perspective is sometimes a little naive, too polite or somewhat superficial, but at least his book is a well-structured, readable, accessible and balanced story about the facts of what happened in Marx’s life, and it has been reprinted in new editions across almost half a century. In brief: it is useful to readers, and that is why it is still selling.

    Sven-Eric Liedman’s rambler book is a rather condescending and trite series of “fireside chats” about Marx, and about those of Marx’s contemporary followers which Liedman wants to bring to the attention of his readers. But if you can rise above the tedious propaganda and boring chatter in the book, its weak structure and unconvincing narrative etc., Liedman does also provide some new insights which were not known, or at least not well-known before.

    We are better off having these biographies, than not having them at all. They make it possible, to write an even better biography in the future. So, allow the historians the freedom to make all the “bold hypotheses” they like about Marx, rightly or wrongly – in doing so, they provide new data, new insights and new arguments!

    Ernest Mandel wrote in 1948: “He who leaves nothing to posterity incurs no risk of having his legacy contested.” Marx and Engels bequeathed plenty to posterity; protesting against modern scholars contesting their legacy is a bit like wanting to outlaw the tides of the sea. If you really want to kill an intellectual legacy, you would have to start off by not paying any attention to it.

    In the mirror of the literature about Marx and Engels, we can see reflected the concerns, intelligence, prejudices and anxieties of the epoch. Postmodernity is supposed to be about the demise of grand narratives (Lyotard etc.). More specifically though, it is about the inability to tell a credible story of any significant size and complexity anymore. If somebody is still able to record such a story, we ought to be thankful, probably, even if self-flattery intrudes too often.

  14. Declaring Marx pre-modern when he helped create the very ideas which are associated with modernity is comical. If these ideas did not come from Marx where does Sperber think they came from? What a joke.

  15. @Brech – I do not have Sperber’s text to refer to at this moment, but I guess it depends on what you mean by “modern”. There are several different interpretations among scholars about this. For example,

    (1) The “modern” epoch begins with the close of the middle ages, somewhere around 1500 AD (the rise of an urban commercial bourgeoisie and the expansion of a market economy and market society). This contrasts with the “pre-modern” epoch, according to many historians (there are disputes about the exact historical turning point).

    (2) Modernity begins with the Renaissance, the destruction of aristocratic power, the separation of church and state, and so on.

    (3) Modernity begins with the spread of “modern industry” in the 19th century, and with the protests and laments about its effects.

    (4) Modernity (or “modernism”) begins with the technocratic movement, influential from the first half of the 20th century, that society can be “engineered” using science, into an efficient and effective organism, which can steadily provide a better standard of living for everyone (the process is “modernization”). In contrast, the concept of postmodernity or postmodernism would mark the revolt against, and the gradual break-up of that idea.

    (5) Modern society is the type of society which emerged after the second world war, and through the third industrial revolution, which reconstructed society into a new and quite different social order.

    If Marx was supposedly “pre-modern”, this suggests a definition of modernity as a new era which emerged after Marx wrote his main writings (or perhaps more precisely, “began to emerge” as Marx was writing – but, and this is the point, Marx could not fully comprehend its overall significance yet, even if he identified its latently present potentials – this would explain faulty forecasts that he made).

    When Sperber depicts Marx as a “Victorian” enlightenment thinker, the suggestion is, that Marx in the 19th century operated with assumptions, sentiments, moral notions and theoretical frameworks about human life which were subsequently overtaken by history. Thus, on this view, qualitative and quantitative changes in historical development created a new epoch, which separates our world from the world that Marx lived in. It is not that everything that Marx said is mistaken or irrelevant these days, but rather that the issues he talked about have a different significance, proportion or weight in the society that people living today know about, and experience.

    Sperber’s argument is probably more nuanced than many of his critics think, but one’s appreciation of what he says depends a lot on one’s own reading of the historical forces at work in the last two centuries.

    Could the controversy be definitely resolved? Probably not, since the future puts the past in a different light. What you can say is, that some readings of Marx definitely do not pass the smell test, and other readings do.

    Every history is a narrative or is part of a narrative, which explains some things and does not explain other things. The question then is, what the real limits of the narrative is – what could it explain, if is true? And what does it fail to explain? The most convincing narrative is presumably the one which explains the most, in the most “economical” and lucid way.

    The point here is, that if historians commit to certain assumptions and interpretations, then they have to deal with the consequences and further implications of their chosen positions. Some ideas cannot be supported in the light of evidence, and some hypotheses about cause and effect are implausible, given what we can know. If historians only talked about things which cannot or have not yet been tested or proved, or if they utter only petitio principii and shilly-shally sophisms, or if they are only tossing around different definitions, conceptualizations and categorizations, then this isn’t very interesting. The aim is to bring the facts of history and the theories of history closer together, so that theory makes sense of the facts and historical research helps to shape and relativize theory.

    The problem usually is, that there is a ton of theory and only an ounce of real original historical research. You can find out a tremendous amount, if you do the research, yet even if you do all this research, it is only limited in its scope. There is always more theoretical speculation than real tests of hypotheses that can be replicated.

    What we are seeing more and more in the last half century, is that research is done in teams, because one individual, even if very bright and knowledgeable, can no longer accomplish everything alone.

    The question of “what is the use and relevance of Marx today” can be answered in different ways.

    *One group of scholars wants to debate it, in the light of new trends and events.
    *Another group just gets busy with understanding what is happening in society, the state and the economy using Marx’s insights as a guide and a heuristic.
    *Yet another group treats Marx’s writings as a sort of bible, and stand by the truth of all or most of what he said.

    Basically though the majority of people is rather uncertain about what the relevance of Marx would be, and what the true nature is of the epoch we live in – a “deregulated, rapidly changing and unstable” epoch. The narratives about Marx which survive from the past, no longer speak so convincingly anymore to the present and the future, but the same goes for most rival narratives as well, it is intrinsic to the epoch that we live in (as pointed out by many sociologists).

    1. Jurrian Bendien:

      Save your breath to cool your porridge, as advised by Sancho Panza if I am not mistaken. If you think Marx can teach nothing, ignore him. You or Sperber are under no obligation to take him seriously. Try the alternatives.

  16. Oh, I do think that Marx had a lot of great insights, I do take him seriously, and I still read his writings. It’s fascinating stuff. I have been doing that on and off for about 40 years, as time permits.

    Yet there’s no denying the world is different now from what it was in Marx’s time. This is a platitude, of course, the real issue is about what the continuities and discontinuities actually are, and in what ways Marx’s heirs have improved on his perspectives. Sperber offers his judgement on that issue, and it’s worth considering I think, even if one does not end up agreeing with it, in part or as a whole.

    If you trace through the history of Marxian thought across 150 years, you find that in each new epoch different themes became prominent, and that the interpretations changed, as new problems and issues emerged. It is nowadays popular to say that Marx’s work was “unfinished”, but that has – as Otto Bauer already pointed out in the first years of the 20th century – in reality always been true, and various authors have tried to complete what Marx begun in different ways, some more plausible than others. I think each of them had some merits and a certain validity at the time, but I am not a “true believer” in the sense that Marxists are, that is all.

    I do not believe anymore in eponymous doctrines. It appears that Marx didn’t either (he was actually rather critical of Lafargue’s and Guesde’s attempt to build a Marxist party in France). I’d rather keep the valid content, and dispense with the rhetorics.

    Save your breath to cool your porridge? That’s from Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”, chapter 6. Also John Galt’s book, “The entail, or the lairds of grippy”, for example. What Sancho Paza has to do with it, I do not know. Cervantes was talking about “tilting at windmills” and suchlike.

    This is a public forum for discussion of reviewed texts in the Marxian tradition, but I will take your suggestion and bow out of this discussion – it is evidently not leading to any productive discussion.

    To quote Cervantes, “I do not say a proverb is amiss when aptly and reasonably applied, but to be forever discharging them, right or wrong, hit or miss, renders conversation insipid and vulgar.” There appears to be “no modern love lost between us” – if I may put it that way.

    1. Jurrian Bendien:

      What bemuses me is that these writers who claim Marx is obsolete spend so much time proving it. If he really is outdated, why use up 700 pages to show that, as Sperber has done? You may say, he still has a lot of dupes and so has to be debunked. But at such inordinate length?

  17. If these fruitful ideas about how economics influences political and cultural change were not the discovery of Marx, as Sperber claims, we still need to know from whom they came. Sperber has not told us.

  18. If you really want to know the in’s and out’s of Sperber’s motivation, why not email him? (sperberj@missouri.edu). If you wrote a polite, sincere and friendly email to him, stating your own motivation for asking this question clearly, you might get a reply. If you wrote a silly, half-assed illiterate letter to him though, most probably you would not get a reply.

    1. I have no interest in corresponding with Sperber because he has proved in his book that he has not done his homework on basic aspects of Marx and Engels’ ideas. He is under no obligation to value Marx nor are you or anyone outside of China or Vietnam or Cuba. If anyone thinks Marx does not matter today, pass on. As I said, there are plenty of other social thinkers.

  19. In the preface to his biography, Sperber both consigns Marx to the nineteenth century and defends writing such a long book about this outdated figure by saying that Marx is worth studying as a man of the past, like Bismarck or Garibaldi. But this is a false comparison. Sholars study Bismarck and Garibaldi at length because they transformed their own time, the nineteenth century. Marx was barely known to the press and public in his own time; so much so that the London Times’ small obituary of him was sent by its Paris correspondent though he lived and died in London. Marx did not matter in the nineteenth century. He is important, if at all, only as a figure who influenced later times. But Sperber says that influence was all misplaced. Fair enough. So write a small book to tell us why and consign Marx to the archives. But Sperber churns out a huge one….

  20. Your job as dictatorial Marxist is to vilify, slate and censure Sperber and his readership, my job is to understand what is correct and mistaken in Sperber’s book.

    You are disgusted with the popularity and content of Sperber’s book, for me it is an opportunity to start a conversation about Marx, who is being immortalized once again by Sperber.

    Your dictatorial method and my alt-socialist method are therefore completely different and irreconcilable. Your method is the method of tyrannical, authoritarian monologue, in which you decree what may be said or not, and in which you are in charge of asking the questions which others must answer.

    My method is the method of dialogue, a precondition for which is, that you are prepared to accept that the intention (and at least part of the content) of a different opinion is quite valid.

    You have nothing in common with Sperber, but I do. We are both truth-seekers. You do not seek the truth, because you want to dictate the truth in advance. That is, you think you already have the truth on your side, once and for all.

    I don’t think you will get many takers for your “Marxism” these days.

  21. Aren’t you exaggerating? All I pointed out is that Sperber has not done his basic homework on Marx and Engels’ ideas, as is proved by his ignorance of their whole central concept of Historical Materialism. That is like writing about Einstein without having noticed the Theory of Relativity. For the rest, I remarked that if Sperber is so determined to consign Marx to the nineteenth century it made no sense to write such a big book about an outdated thinker. It’s no good saying people write big books about Bismarck. Unlike Bismarck Marx was not much known in the nineteenth century. I was also struck by the fear Sperber caused in the ranks of those who admired Marx: the fear of seeming to be caught up with outdated stuff. But why be afraid? If Marx is irrelevant ignore him. See how they manage with the alternatives.

  22. No I am not exaggerating, because you cannot even recognize what is faulty with your own interpretation, because you believe you have the truth on your side already.

    I can illustrate this with an example. Karl Marx himself never used the term “historical materialism” even once, and he never published any substantive work on the theory or philosophy of history.

    Marx never talked about a “labour theory of value” either, he did not use that terminology because he knew quite well that the value of many assets is not determined by labour time.

    Philosophizing about the laws of history was against Marx’s inclination, he didn’t believe in that sort of thing. It is more that, later, the Marxists and Marxist-Leninists re-edited his unpublished manuscripts into a grandiose philosophical system, which has all of the answers to all of the questions in advance, up to and including cosmic questions.

    So, such “philosophical” endeavours are *later* “Marxist” developments. Yet, this is precisely one of the issues which Sperber aims to address: the fact, that after Marx was safely dead, his heirs (or appropriators) attributed all kinds of ideas to Marx which in truth he never had, or which had quite a different meaning in the context in which Marx originally expressed them. Sometimes they presented a “tamer” Marx (e.g. Bernstein) and sometimes they projected a more radical Marx (e.g. Lenin). The leading German Marxist Michael Heinrich is writing a new biography of Marx that could become a new orthodoxy, but Sperber beat him to it.

    You actually prove and affirm Sperber’s point by what you say, rather than showing he is mistaken.

    The central theme of Stalinist ideology was, that all resistance or opposition to the project of socialist construction was useless, and moreover without any merit. The victory of socialist construction was presented as inevitable, and as the only possible outcome.

    For this purpose, the doctrine of “historical materialism”, which existed already, was reshaped to emphasize the operation of powerful, inevitable forces in history, transcending individuals. Under the watchful eye of the all-seeing central committee, which fully understood the laws of history (aided by correct Marxist-Leninist science) the country was being steered in the right direction. This is what you call a “historical narrative” within which a discourse takes place.

    Inversely, neo-liberal ideology since 1980 drives to an extreme the power of individual agency, and in this case, it is exclusively individuals which can make history. This is also a grand narrative within which there is a discourse.

    Yet neither Stalinist ideology nor neoliberal ideology has substantively anything to do with Marx’s “materialist conception” of history.

    When Marx talked about materialism, he was thinking of the Greek philosophers (e.g. Democritus, discussed in his Phd) and Hegel’s objective idealism etc. Marx however was never a philosophical materialist in the modern sense of that word, as Stephen Priest has aptly commented.

    Marx did not believe that mental phenomena are equal to physical phenomena, or fully reducible to physical phenomena. If that was the case, it would become difficult to explain how the same physical phenomena can produce quite different thoughts, different thoughts can produce the same physical phenomena, the same thoughts can produce different physical phenomena, and different physical phenomena can produce the same thoughts (there are, beyond this, many more problems of explanation with materialism, in the strict sense of the word).

    Ironically, Marxists invested a tremendous effort in systematizing Marx’s thought into a new “scientific” theology. That effort may have some merits (to the extent that, for example, it revealed more implications of what Marx said, did or thought, or added worthwhile ideas) but point is, this resulted in ideological systems, which had very little to do anymore with Marx himself, or even with what he stood for.

    In reality, Karl Marx had a huge and undeniable effect on history with his ideas and activity (but why, exactly? Opinions differ on this). His thought (in whatever misshapen form it may be been communicated) affected the lives of a few billion people, for better or worse.

    It inspired modernization programs affecting a quarter of the world’s land area, and significantly influenced politics in perhaps half of the world’s land area. The case of Marx illustrates, the real power an individual with ideas can have on historical development, even if he never expected that to happen, and was unaware of it, and even if he misjudged historical dynamics himself.

    When Sperber is using his intellectual broom, to brush Marx back into the 19th century, as part of his historical cleanup, he is actually also trying to dump the memory of socialism and communism in the 20th century.

    But Sperber is not alone in this. The Neue Marx Lekture movement in Germany, with offshoots in other European countries and the America’s, is trying to do exactly the same.

    For both the Left and the Right, the 20th century past has become rather uncomfortable and problematic today. Sort of like, “not very nice”. It is just that it is quite difficult to wipe out historical memory, and so then the idea is, that you shift the emphasis, attention and focus onto something else.

    The Neue Marx Lekture wants to return to Marx, bypassing Marxism in the 20th century, in part to reunify the Left on a new and better basis. Sperber’s book implies, that this “refoundation” idea is mainly a convenient fiction, a mythology.

    You might say, the Marxists don’t really know how to unite the Left, precisely *because* they are living in the past, rather than facing up to the present and the future. They are out of touch with reality, because they are in the rearguard of society and not the vanguard. In Italy, a “Communist Refoundation Party” didn’t get anywhere.

    In Franco’s Spain, the academics had to toe the line, and critics were silenced. After Franco, there has been a long time where Spanish historians tried to give a voice to all those who were suppressed and silenced in the Franco era. There is still often uncertainty or disagreement about what truly happened in Spanish history, and how this can be explained, even today. The true stories could not be told for a very long time, but now – and this is the real point – their true importance or significance (in the broader scheme of things) is in dispute. This situation is somewhat similar in Russia, Eastern Europe, China etc., so that you typically get a mix of ideology and science as the sanctioned narrative.

    In contemporary society, the biggest change of all though, is in the perceptions of the utility of historical knowledge, and in the perceptions of how historical change truly comes about. What has changed, in other words, is the perceptions about “what you can actually do with history”, and what history is good for. Not in the sense that a teacher explains about the subject of history to students, but history as a governance tool, as a political tool, as an information tool, or as a cultural tool. Or just as a tool. This is a pretty new theme, and a lot of academics haven’t really cottoned on to the implications yet.

    For example, once you can stick history into a computer, you can then technically speaking spew that history all over the world. That creates quite “interesting” possibilities. It goes much beyond that though, because you can now powerfully alter both the perspective of the past and the perspective of the future for hundreds of millions of people. Yet, there is at the same time also a lot of uncertainty about the effects and impact of historical narratives in an internetized world. Ultimately the mind-changers can only operate on the intellectual trends which are actually there, and which are visible.

    Sperber’s new project is a book on the second half of the 20th century, on the more sexy topic of “The Age of Interconnection” which is presumably obliquely also some kind of a reply to Eric Hobsbawm (amongst others), and a venture in globalization theory. But Sperber hasn’t really dealt yet with the 1914-1945 era, and how that emerged out of the 19th century.

    The world wars punctuate the most uncomfortable segment of the still living past (the elites and the political class misjudged things badly, and the first world war produced a second world war, with another holocaust; in turn, this had all kinds of adverse longterm effects on the development of bourgeois society). My own parents were lucky to survive in the second world war, but the offspring of my own generation have no connection with the experience of world war at all.

    You ought to watch the British movie The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983). A ploughman’s lunch is supposed to be a traditional, classic British dish, but in reality it was invented by a marketing bureau in the 1950s, to promote a campaign for cheese consumption by the Cheese Board.

    The movie, set in Britain in 1982, at the time of the Falklands war, is a somewhat complicated story about Tory intrigue, in which one theme is, how history is deliberately rewritten to resonate with contemporary elite concerns, and evidence of any alternative interpretations is quietly wiped out.

    Most people these days are intellectually lazy. They only want to cream off the most advanced ideas, as quickly as possible, preferably in ready-made and easily digestible portions. At universities, they learn techniques for how to “appropriate” chunks of knowledge.

    By that very fact though, people often lose many of the creative powers of original thought. They are unable to frame what the questions are, since they are only the consumers of different answers. At least Sperber is still thinking.

  23. I haven’t personally met Prof. Sperber, so I don’t know, but he seems to be able to get on with people. I am not satisfied, in the sense that I did not get around yet to the reply to his book, which I intended to write. I just have enough time to produce large texts right now.

    A few years ago, I was chatting with Chris Arthur (Christopher J. Arthur) about how The German Ideology by Marx and Engels, a well-loved text by Marx-scholars, had originally never existed as a coherent manuscript with that title. It was an edition originally produced by David Riazanov’s Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow – among the last Marxological works that was prepared under his guidance (published in 1932).

    Well, Arthur replied laconically (but with an air of pride), “all that may be true, but nevertheless International Publishers is intending to reprint my own 1970 excerpted edition of The German Ideology”.

    I was highly surprised about this, and I asked him, “how can they do that, in the light of what we know now about the real status of the original manuscript and about who wrote it?” He had to smile about that one. There was, he shrugged, a demand for the old-style Marxist edition.

    In 1916, the reprint was indeed published in New York, though it was described as an “updated edition”. https://www.intpubnyc.com/product/german-ideology/ International Publishers is doing quite a lot of other reprints of Marxist texts, some of which will no doubt be reviewed at some stage in M&PR.

    Poor old Riazanov. Shortly after his show-trial and execution in 1938, agents of the NKVD arrived at his humble dacha, to complete the last part of the court ruling: “confiscation of all his personal belongings”, and “the destruction of useless objects”. All his books were loaded on the back of a truck. His papers and remaining notes were thrown on a bonfire, together with everything placed on the writing desk in his study.

    Among the ransacked items from Riazanov’s estate was an original picture of Frederick Engels as a young man, with a hand-written dedication by Marx’s daughter Laura. “Who is this?”, one of the NKVD men (sporting a blue-red cap) asked Riazanov’s granddaughter. “It is Engels”, she replied. “And who is Engels?”, the agent retorted – throwing the priceless daguerreotype into the flames.

    Jan Sten, the deputy director of the Marx-Engels Institute, fared no better. In 1925, Stalin had summoned Sten to provide him with private lessons in Marxist dialectics. The lessons apparently continued until 1928.

    A few years later though, Sten was expelled from the Communist Party (because of his links with the Left Opposition, as Pierre Broue documented) and exiled to a small town in Kazachstan. Subsequently, Sten was arrested again on Stalin’s orders, and, on June 19, 1937, put to death in Lefortovo prison – the official reason being (ironically), that he had been “one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists”.

    The recent Karl Marx exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, titled ‘The power of Truth’, has been visited by two million tourists. The visitors just kept streaming in, at a rate of 36,800 per day. [https://socialhistory.org/en/news/exhibition-beijing-receives-2-million-visitors]

    Marx is not going out of fashion. He is still there, in the consciousness of many, as a stern or benign God, a hero, a teacher, as a social scientist or political leader, or as a harmless icon.

    Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,
    Led us to this perfect day.
    Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,
    All but Wei were sacrificed.
    Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,
    Gave us lovely schools and parks.
    Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood,
    Made us humble, made us good.

  24. I don’t care in the least whether Marx goes out of fashion. It’s like worrying about the danger of the force of gravity going out of fashion. Well, let them try some other ideas about historical change. See where it gets them.

  25. As regards historical change: in an 1877 letter to Editor of the Otecestvenniye Zapisky (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/11/russia.htm), Marx commented on his view of historical development as follows:

    “If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction – she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.) Let us take an example. In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage labourers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.”

    General disquisitions about the “march of history”, following inevitable laws, let alone a general philosophy of history, were alien to Marx’s approach. Certainly, he diagnosed many developmental tendencies in the capitalist mode of production, which he believed would ultimately win through with “iron necessity”, but this is not the same thing as a “general theory of history”. Among other things, how the combination of different tendencies would work out, was not predetermined. To find out more about the direction of history was taking or had taken, a great deal of careful empirical research was required, not sweeping philosophical generalizations and quick extrapolations.

  26. Sorry – I wrote previously that “I just have enough time to produce large texts right now”. I meant rather “I just don’t have enough time to produce large texts right now.”
    I am no physicist, but I am aware of three concepts of gravity. The first is the common sense awareness of gravity, such as when, at 6 o’clock in the morning, you get up to go to work.

    The second is the Newtonian concept of gravity of which Marx was aware in his time. It has been disputed whether a Newtonian concept of gravitation was sufficient to send a man to the moon, but it seems to me, that it was in principle sufficient. There was said to be a 120 meter difference between the calculated position and actual landing position for NASA’s Apollo 12, which is not bad going at all, given that the distance between earth and the moon is 384,400 km (ten trips around the world’s equator).
    With regard to orbital mechanics, the invention of the “extended Kalman filter” (an invention by Rudolf E. Kálmán used for all kinds of rockets, vehicles, and projectiles) was an important factor in the moon landings (it is a type of algorithm, a sort of iterative method for calculating a current position estimate, and predicting the next position, as a basis for flight trajectory adjustments).

    Thirdly, there is the concept of gravity in the theory of general relativity. Einstein’s first breakthrough was when he was working in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. “Suddenly a thought struck me,” he reminisced. “If a man falls freely, he would not feel his weight (…) This simple thought experiment (…) led me to the theory of gravity.” He realised, that there is a deep relationship between systems affected by gravity and ones that are accelerating. Much later, when the Viking 1 probe was sent to Mars, scientists tested out the theory of gravitational time dilation, and yep, the theory was confirmed (the passing to time, compared to the speed of light, varies according to the power of the gravitational field).

    What has this to do with Marx? The insight is along the following lines: for most practical purposes in everyday life, a common sense concept of gravity is sufficient. And if you want to build a building, probably the Newtonian idea of gravity will do fine. As far as I know, some people are still throwing pennies off the top of the empire state building in New York (I could be wrong!). However, the idea of gravity in the theory of general relativity enlarges the scope of possibilities. Think for example of GPS satellites, and the behaviour of light.

    By analogy, some people prefer the “common sense” interpretation of Marx about the forces at work in people’s experience of historical time. And it can provide enough orientation. It is sort of like, “gimme that oldtime Marxist theory, it’s good enough for me”. This is the level of understanding of the journals “Historical Materialism” and “International Socialism.

    At another level of understanding, when you want to find solutions to the larger problems of society and history, you need to understand the possible solutions tested out in the 20th century by many political, intellectual and cultural movements (not just Marxist ones).

    What, however, if we consciously want to shape the future ourselves, individually and collectively, rather than vegetate like reactive worms trapped in an empty jam jar (for one reason or another)? This was the ultimate and highest aspiration of Marxian thought, of which Karl Popper was very well aware (he thought Marxists were far too extreme though, in their perceptions of what could be achieved).

    How can humans really take charge of their destiny, individually and collectively, to make the world a better place for all to live in, and protect the biosphere from destruction? Neither a “common sense” version of Marx, nor the 20th century experience of human experiments and innovations will actually be sufficient.

    You require the most advanced knowledges available nowadays in every field of endeavour. You need a very experienced movement, well-versed in the advances and progress of many different fields of endeavour.

    It makes politics and activism more exciting, because the knowledges and curiosity of everyone are needed. You might laugh at what somebody else knows, but you won’t be laughing, when it is needed. And then you need to be able to find the people who do know. They are not likely to tell you what they know, if you laugh at them.

    Yet in that case, you have to go well beyond what Marx and the previous Marxist movements could offer. Particularly since world war 2, the expansion of tertiary education has been gigantic, yielding an enormous amount of new knowledge, about the past, the present and the future. In Marx’s time, the universities were overwhelmingly the preserve of the bourgeois classes.

    Nobody can master all that knowledge anymore, but you can master some of it, in your own corner of the world, and you can unite with people in other fields who have expertise in different areas. We can know a heck of a lot more, than people ever did in Marx’s time, and apply that knowledge to good effect. And we can strive for that, at every level of society. Then we are perhaps acting more “in the spirit” of Marx’s intention, than according to the “letter” of what he wrote.

    Many of Marx’s contributions to the knowledge of society and history still hold true. But by that very fact, they may not be so useful anymore in the present, except in a sense of a grand theoretical framework providing some orientation, because they are pretty much constants. What matters much more, are the real quantitative and qualitative changes in society which are occurring in our lifetime, month after month, year after year. It is up to us to make sense of that.

    1. I have said my say and you have said yours, at inordinate length. I will now take my leave and you will do me the honour of taking yours. Farewell.

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