New, outstanding biography of Karl Marx

Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Karl Marx and the Development of His Work
Volume 1: 1818-1841
By Michael Heinrich
Monthly Review Press, 2019 
390 pp., $46.00

In the opening lines of this book Michael Heinrich quotes from an 1868 letter in which Karl Marx mentions a publisher’s request for a biography. “Not only did I not send one”, said Marx, “I did not even reply to the letter.”

Yet Marx has been the subject of over 30 biographies since then, not bad for a man who rejected any public honours in his lifetime, calling them a “cult of personality”. So why read another account of his life?

One reason is that the entirety of Marx’s writing has now been made public by the Marx Engels Collected Works (MEGA2) project. Heinrich says that the works Marx published in his lifetime were “only the tip of a gigantic iceberg”. The full richness of Marx’s intellectual output can now be examined, which previous generations did not have.

Another reason is because in Michael Heinrich, Marx finally has an interlocuter who is prepared to burrow deep into the intellectual universe that both formed Marx and in which he intervened. Marx was a child of the modern age referred to in the title — and its greatest analyst.

Another writer who promised a similar examination, but who failed to deliver, was Jonathan Sperber in his 2013 Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life. Sperber’s project was crippled by his determination to tendentiously argue that Marx was irrelevant to the 20th Century.

Also, as Heinrich shows, Sperber accepted a number of things previous biographers had written as fact when he should have been more rigorous.

Heinrich’s biography is organised into three major sections, starting with Forgotten Youth 1818-1835. He points out that sources are sparse for this period of Marx’s life, which is why it is normally skated over by biographers. Heinrich compensates for this scarcity by examining the debates that formed Marx. To do this, he looks at Marx's father and his intellectual friends and sparring partners.

He then goes on to Awakening and First Crisis 1835-1838. In this period, Marx attempted at first a career as a poet and then became drawn into the Berlin radical student milieu.

The final section, entitled the Philosophy of Religion, the Beginnings of Young Hegelianism, and Marx’s Dissertation Projects is the most demanding for someone unfamiliar with German philosophy. But it is the area where Heinrich shows his considerable scholarly skills.

The quality of his research means that he often highlights false assumptions in previous Marx biographies. He does not take anything at face value but looks into the sources that previous biographers have used — and quite often finds them unreliable.

He is rigorous in not making psychological estimations of Marx nor of raising him up above the common run of humanity. Where direct information about Marx is not available for a period, he interrogates sources related to the environment in which Marx was part.

He carefully delineates statements that can be based on facts from inferences that can be dependably drawn from related information. This means that considerable parts of this book are in-depth introductions to intellectual debates occurring in Germany in the period immediately after the death of Georg Hegel in 1831. These sprung from the rise of capitalism and the effects of the French Revolution.

Marx was part of the intellectual youth of his time and place, rebelling against the political restraints imposed by the out-dated German feudal monarchies. These struggles took on a religious colouration because defense of Christianity was elevated by the nobility to be their reason for existence.

Heinrich’s achievement is to go beyond other biographers’ exhumation of the early roots of Marx’s later works. He performs an intellectual archaeology, piecing together the real person and his evolution within his time, not elevating him as a prophet above history.

The future two volumes will examine the more familiar, mature Marx, the thinker and the revolutionary. Those will be a treat to read.

A recent presentation on Marx’s Capital delivered by Michael Heinrich can be seen at Youtube.

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