WE ARE told these days that Karl Marx—one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century, if not the single most important one—is enjoying a kind of renaissance. This is attributed by some to the great economic crisis that began in 2008 and destroyed considerable wealth around the world. Given that this crisis is seen widely as a crisis of capitalism, it is natural that many people would think of Marx, who was of course the greatest critic of capitalism in history.
Yet it is a strange renaissance, if indeed it is any kind of renaissance at all. In recent years, there have been many Marxism conferences and countless workshops in places such as Chicago, Boston and Berlin. In London, one Marx “festival” lasted five days under a slogan that cried, “Revolution is in the air.” The invitation read:
Crisis and austerity have exposed the insanity of our global system. Billions have been given to the banks, while billions across the planet face hunger, poverty, climate catastrophes and war. We used to be told capitalism meant prosperity and democracy. Not any more. Now it means austerity for the 99% and rule by the markets.
But is revolution really in the air? France got a socialist government, but it is already in trouble. Britain may follow, but would it fare any better? It seems only natural that, at a time of crisis, public opinion would turn against the party in power. Given the severity of the crisis and the slowness of the recovery, it is not surprising that some people would turn to Marxism. But the fact that the political reaction has been so mild is more astonishing.
And, while some of the conferences and festivals lauding the anticapitalist crusader seem to be motivated by genuine neo-Marxist sentiments, others appear to be using the man as a kind of bandwagon for separate trendy causes and impulses. Consider the agenda at a recent such meeting at the University of Washington. One has to doubt whether these followers of Marx are on the right track when the papers under discussion contain titles such as “Reconsidering Impossible Totalities: Marxist Deployments of the Sublime,” “A Few Thoughts on the Academic Poet as Hobo-Tourist,” “Reading Hip-Hop at the Intersection of Culture and Capitalism,” “Annals of Sexual States” and “The Political Economy of Stranger Intimacy.”
One wonders what Marx’s reaction would be if he sat at his desk in the British Museum’s Reading Room and contemplated such discussions at a gathering dedicated to rethinking his ideas. Would he be impressed, amused or speechless? Perhaps it would remind him of the carnival celebrations each February in his native Trier: wine, funny masks and customs, and pranks—all followed by a hangover of five or six days.
THESE MUSINGS are stirred by the arrival of the latest major Marx biography—Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life,by Jonathan Sperber (W. W. Norton, 672 pp., $35.00). Sperber is an expert on nineteenth-century Germany, and there is much in his book about Marx’s adolescence there, especially in his native Trier. Sperber also deals with Marx’s political activism and his relations with other German revolutionaries in exile in greater detail than previous biographers. Sperber applauds a new interpretation of Marx that looks at the man in the context of his own nineteenth century rather than as a harbinger or instigator of twentieth-century conflict.
“The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course,” he writes, “and it is time for a new understanding of him as a figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own.” Among elements of that past historical epoch, he cites the French Revolution, G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy, and the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it. “It might even be,” he adds, “that Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”
Thus, rather than seeking to illuminate the intellectual clashes of the modern era by bringing Marx into our own time, Sperber attempts to illuminate Marx’s time by transporting his readers back there.
This is not, strictly speaking, a book review but rather an exploration of how history has viewed Karl Marx through various epochs and vogues of thought since he dropped his momentous theories into the Western consciousness a century and a half ago. What can be said about Sperber’s effort, though, is that he tells his story well and should be commended for his competence and reliability. Besides, the publication of a new Marx biography should be welcomed. If people today lack the time or inclination to read Marx—and he isn’t read much these days—one should at least read about him.
One manifestation of the Marx renaissance is that Sperber is not alone. A number of biographies of the man have been published in recent years; one can think of four in English alone. In the decades after World War II, interest in Marx was limited even though Communist and Social Democratic parties were strong at the time. But the basic facts about Marx’s life were pretty well known: his years as a student, his involvement with the young Hegelians, his activity as a left-wing democrat and his discovery of socialism, the years in Paris and Brussels, and eventually his life in London studying capitalism, pondering the class struggle and historical materialism. Information and documents, however marginal, that shed light on Marx’s life were collected in major institutes in Moscow, Amsterdam and London. The Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow was the largest and best equipped of these, but it was closed in 1993. The Amsterdam International Institute of Social History, founded in 1935, still exists, as does the Marx Memorial Library located in Clerkenwell Green in London’s East End.
For many years, Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx: The Story of His Life—first published in 1918, and still in print today—was the leading text in the field. Mehring was a “bourgeois” journalist who found his way at midlife to the socialist movement. It is a decent work, very respectful of the master but not entirely uncritical. Orthodox Marxists never forgave Mehring for defending Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin against often-intemperate attacks by Marx. Lassalle, of German Jewish origin, was the founder of the first German socialist party. He was a very talented and charismatic leader but highly unstable—occasionally given to harebrained schemes and actions. As a theoretician he was not remotely in Marx’s league, but he resided in Germany and was therefore more popular and better known among workers than the distant Marx. Lassalle died young in a duel concerning the good name of a young lady of aristocratic origin. Marx, who had been in close contact with him, later referred to him as that “Jewish nigger,” among other ungracious epithets.
Author of an excellent biography of the Marx family, Mary Gabriel decided not to reveal to her readers such Marx malefaction on the grounds that it might create a mistaken impression. Of course, such language was all too common at the time and should not be measured against today’s higher standards of discourse. Marx, to borrow a phrase coined by Freud, was “badly baptized.” Instead of dissociating himself quietly and more or less elegantly from his tribe, he seemed bothered and self-conscious about his Jewish heritage. But Lassalle wasn’t exactly a proud Jew either; in a letter to his fiancé he wrote that he hated the Jews. But in the end, Gabriel’s sanitation seems misplaced; judgment should be left to readers.
As for the famous Russian anarchist, Bakunin, he too had once been close to Marx but later fell out with him. There developed between them genuine political differences after Bakunin embraced anarchism, but Marx’s deep and unshakable Russophobia played a part as well. Marx was a great believer in conspiracy theories; for many years he insisted that Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, was a secret Russian agent. On the other hand, Marx trusted the spies that Prussian and German governments had planted in his inner circle. He was not much of a judge of his fellow human beings.
THE MEHRING biography is no longer adequate for our time. It was bound to be incomplete because Marx’s early writings and much of his correspondence became accessible to a wider public only in 1932. Nor was it known outside a very small circle that Marx had fathered a boy with Helene Demuth, the faithful domestic in the Marx London household. Marx’s illegitimate son was the only member of the family to live and witness the victory of socialism (as it was then called) in Russia.
Among other biographies, there is general agreement that David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought is the standard work. It was written in the 1970s, before the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and is now in its fourth edition. But other books have stressed distinctive aspects of Marx’s life and merit attention for that. Francis Wheen’s book, Karl Marx: A Life,is well written and was well received for its emphasis on Marx’s English contemporaries. Wheen deals with Marx’s exchanges with Darwin in greater detail than other authors. Although Wheen takes issue with other biographers, the bones of contention are not fundamental.Image: Pullquote: 'Marx' has become something like a shortcut or a symbol indicating a predilection for radical change in a wide variety of fields loosely called 'cultural studies.'Essay Types: Essay