Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life
Liveright Publishing, 2013
In life, Karl Marx lived a tumultuous, revolutionary life. His death, too, has been less than tranquil.
Alive, he was the best hated man in Europe. For the ruling classes and police spies he personified the “spectre” that was haunting the continent, the demonic rise of workers’ revolution.
After his death he was bleached of his humanity, canonised by admirers and slandered by enemies. Both misrepresented him.
His enormous collection of notes and half-formulated writings were bequeathed first to his collaborator Friedrich Engels and later to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Engels laboured long and hard, managing to produce the second and third volumes of Capital.
Stumbling across Marx’s notebooks on anthropological research, Engels also managed to write The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the classic Marxist analysis on the topic. The SPD’s Karl Kautsky cobbled together the volumes of the Theories of Surplus Value, which formed the last instalments of Capital.
Along the way, Kautsky and the SPD turned themselves into the arbiters of Marxism, the font of all wisdom on the man and his work. Kautsky was even referred to as the “Pope of Marxism”.
The messy details of Marx’s life — such as fathering an illegitimate child — were buried and the image of the prophet who foretold the inevitable collapse of capitalism was manufactured.
Below that edifice was buried Marx’s true radicalism. Within the German SPD, social reform replaced revolution — the perfect justification for the party’s bureaucratisation and adaptation to peaceful coexistence with capitalism.
That strand of defanged Marxism exposed itself when the SPD supported the German government in World War I. However, as if in an historical horror show, the Stalinised Soviet Union took over the care of this mummified Marxism.
The Stalinists seized control of Marx’s intellectual legacy by gathering all his writings and overseeing the production of his collected works (known by their German initials as the MEGA). Careful selection kept Marx’s more dangerous thoughts from the eyes of the masses.
With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, these collected papers have been translated by a new group of academics, producing what is known as MEGA2. This enlarged body of work is available for scholars.
We can expect that in years to come historians and others will be mining it for nuggets of information, which is what Jonathan Sperber has done in his minutely researched volume, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life.
Sperber, an expert in early-19th century Germany and the German language, should be perfect for this task of revealing the real Marx. Unfortunately, however, his eye is selective.
Sperber has come not just to dust off the accretions of history from the real Marx, but to bury Marxism for all time. Sperber’s tome, which he sets the mission of being the authoritative text on Marx, has some peculiar assertions and omissions.
The book begins quite insightfully, exploring Marx’s early history by situating him in the revolutionary times in which he lived. By delving into the faction fights in which Marx engaged, not only is Marx’s point of view reported, but also the arguments raised against him, which fills out the record.
However, Sperber revels in any hostile gossip that opponents piled onto Marx or Engels. Any tirade is accepted as fact, whereas Marx’s polemics are subjected to minute, critical examination.
Sperber’s method at times turns peculiar. He insists that this famous sentence from The Communist Manifesto is mistranslated: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
He contends that in English, it should read: “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is desecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.”
Why insist on a bland translation? Because Sperber’s project is to demonstrate that Marx is irrelevant to this century and his translation is part of his case.
Marx was not describing the epic results of capitalism on society in that sentence, Sperber says. He was only commenting on the bourgeois overthrow of feudalism (“the society of orders”).
Sperber’s point is that the Manifesto was only looking backwards, not referring to the ongoing revolutionising effects of capitalism.
Such an argument is not only a wilful misreading of the Manifesto, but of the entire body of Marx’s works. Sperber pronounces that, being mired in old fashioned irrelevancy, Marxism means nothing today.
Sperber also goes into a long-winded critique, covering many pages, in which he insists that Marx was not a dialectician, but was an unconscious, though inconsistent positivist.
Now this really is getting strange. Positivism held that society was evolving towards a more sophisticated future through scientific advancement.
Sperber, while arguing his positivist case against Marx, does not actually define what he means by the term. By inference it appears that it includes, for him, the collection of evidence and the analysis of data — in short the scientific method — plus a teleological belief in the steady advance of human civilisation.
These are certainly elements of positivism and lend it its semi-religious flavour, even though it is secularist. Positivism is an extreme form of empiricism that reifies the scientific method and imposes it on sociology.
The degenerate bureaucrats of the German SPD were certainly influenced by positivism, because it let them off the hook of having to organise and lead class struggle. Stalinism, with its mechanical materialist worship of the Five Year Plan, wilfully mixed dialectics with positivism.
Sperber says that philosophically, Marx was stuck halfway along a line that stretched from Hegel at one end, with his “distrust of empirical evidence”, and positivists at the other end with their “scientific method and scientific form of empiricism”.
Sperber has it wrong. Above all, Marx believed that the possibility of social progress depended on human intervention — revolutionary activity expressed through class struggle. Positivism passively depends on the advancement of science.
Sperber is also at pains to criticise supposed failings in Marxist economic theory, which he delves into over 10 pages. It is a brave writer who tries to summarise Marxist economics in such a brief space and Sperber more than fails the job.
Following on from his inability to understand Hegelian or Marxist dialectics, Sperber can’t see the dynamic thrust of Marx’s economics. For Sperber, Marx’s grasp of economic reality was “static”, effectively “snapshots of the 1860s”.
Sperber is on slightly surer ground when he criticises Marx’s theorising about the tendency of the rate of profit to decline over time. Over the years, Marx made several different attempts at explaining this tendency and never succeeded to his own satisfaction.
Sperber also delves into Marx’s newspaper editorships, indicating that his papers were dominated by strident, unreadable polemics. But he makes no mention, for example, of the prominence of poetry in Marx’s newspapers. S. S. Pawer, in Karl Marx and World Literature, available since 1976, records the trouble to which Marx went to get the best of contemporary radical poets into his papers.
Sperber thinks that Marx’s literary allusions in his journalism were unintelligible to a mass audience, whereas Pawer shows that that his contemporaries were able to pick up the references easily.
Similarly, in Sperber’s account, Marx’s organising activities to keep Britain from entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy are absent. In fact, Marx’s keen interest in American events appears right in the preface to Capital Volume I and his activity was immense.
Sperber completely misses the point: when Marx inverted Hegel’s dialectics and applied it to political economy he did not just create a new economic theory with some attendant radical posturing. Marxism is a philosophy of human action aimed at the complete liberation of the entire human race and the rescue of the planet from capitalist over-exploitation.
Marx was a critic of capitalism and, ironically, it is capitalism that has kept its nemesis, Karl Marx, alive. Capitalism’s myriad oppressions demand analysis and resistance. In that, the ideas and revolutionary example of Marx are vibrant.