Trier, the small town in southwest Germany where Karl Marx was born in 1818, is a former Roman capital still littered with ruins, in a Catholic part of the Rhineland known mostly for its wine. When Mary Shelley passed through in 1840, she was exhausted by the long carriage ride over bad roads, horrified by the miserable peasants she saw along the way, and frustrated that there was no steamship on the winding Moselle River to take her to the Rhine. How could such a backward, remote place have shaped an author of The Communist Manifesto? The way Jonathan Sperber answers this question in the first chapter of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life illustrates and vindicates the historical method suggested in his subtitle, showing just how badly we needed a new life of Marx and why it needed to be written by a historian.
Other biographers turn quickly from the town to the Marx family, attempting to explain why Marx became a revolutionary by focusing on his Jewish roots. “Thoroughly Jewish in their origins, Protestant by necessity yet living in a Catholic region,” the Marx family “could never regard their social integration as complete,” writes David McLellan, in Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, the last major biography of Marx in English, published forty years ago and still the standard today. The first chapter of Francis Wheen’s more recent Karl Marx is called “The Outsider,” and opens with an allusion to the Holocaust.
In his first sentence, Sperber underscores a crucial fact about Marx’s birth that McLellan and Wheen ignore: the year. Marx was born “at the end of three decades of revolutionary upheaval and counterrevolutionary response that shaped the lives of his parents, strongly influenced his upbringing and education, and created political passions and political enemies that would remain with him throughout his life.” The Rhineland was affected earlier and more deeply by the French Revolution than anyplace else in Central Europe. In Marx’s parents’ lifetime, the ancient Electorate of Trier and most of the weird old pieces of the Holy Roman Empire around it were wiped off the map. Trier and other German territories west of the Rhine were annexed by the French Republic in 1797, and then, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, ceded to Prussia, a faraway Protestant kingdom that treated its new and mostly Catholic territory in the west as something of a colony. If the Marxes’ “social integration” was incomplete, it may have been because their entire society had recently disintegrated.
But all things considered, the Marx family adapted to change fairly successfully. Unlike previous biographers, Sperber notes that Marx’s father, Heinrich, also known as both Heschel and Henri, served as secretary to the Trier Consistory, representing local Jewish interests under French rule, and that Heinrich’s brother, the rabbi Samuel Marx, was a delegate to the “Grand Sanhedrin,” an 1806 assembly of Jewish leaders invited by Napoleon from across the empire to replicate the Jewish court of antiquity. Sperber describes in detail how Trier experienced the less than altruistic French “liberation,” and how it challenged the identity of the Jews as a nation apart, dividing their community and often making them scapegoats for anti-Napoleonic sentiment. This was a social revolution, too, he reminds the reader; the French expropriated property and transformed whole ways of life. It evidently frustrated and changed Heinrich Marx, who converted and became a loyal subject of the Prussian absolutist monarchy while retaining a strong personal faith in Enlightenment values.
Early nineteenth-century Trier, then, was not the remote and sleepy hamlet that a tourist may take it to be. It was on the fault line dividing the five great powers of Europe into a liberal west—France and England—and a conservative east: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Abandoning crypto-racial origin myths, Sperber turns outsiders into fellow citizens; he also begins to map the international terrain of Marx’s career as a whole. It is as if Trier has been airlifted from the land of the lost to a place at or near the hot center of modern European history: instead of just “backward,” it is full of conflicts of values that define the new century and might incline a young person to rebellion or reflection, or both.
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A New York Times obituary for Karl Marx used verbs like these—born, began, edited (the Rheinische Zeitung), suppressed, fled, arrested, sent (across the frontier!), found (refuge!), occurred (revolution!), hastened, revived, remained, expelled, proceeded, supported (himself!), labored (hard!), conceived (the International!)—to show that he had led a life “full of adventure, like all political conspirators.” The paper was impressed by Marx’s productivity as a journalist—Capital hadn’t yet been translated—but it identified him first and foremost as “the ostensible leader of the famous International Society in Europe.” This International Society, it explains, was “originally intended to work for the benefit of working men in general, partially on the trade-union system,” but then “became a purely political organization, which has since grown to formidable dimensions throughout Europe.” What happens when working men meddle in politics? “It is believed by many that the Commune in France was really inspired by the International Society, though the charge has been strenuously denied.”
Although it was erroneously published in 1871, twelve years before Marx died, this obituary already shows the paranoid circumlocution that is still used to implicate him in historical events without clearly defining his role. By the same logic that holds Marx responsible for several twentieth-century revolutions, he appears here as the “ostensible” leader of a shadowy group that meant well but went wrong and inspired some catastrophe. Each step in this argument is speculative and muddled, beginning with the first. Marx was officially a coordinating secretary to the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–1876), a loose-knit network of many different kinds of groups that mostly worked together on labor issues like the organization of strikes and the regulation of the working day. Marx himself staunchly opposed revolutionary conspiracies: “There is no mystery to clear up, dear sir,” he is reported to have told a curious interviewer for the New York World, “except perhaps the mystery of human stupidity in those who perpetually ignore the fact that our Association is a public one, and that the fullest reports of its proceedings are published for all who care to read them.”
Today, when Marx is remembered mainly as a “theorist,” whatever that is, he is characterized by different verbs, to judge from the brief note about the authors in the front of the Penguin Classics edition of The Communist Manifesto: born, studied, joined (the Young Hegelians), reconciled, became, left, stayed, began (his collaboration with Engels), developed (a theory of communism), outlined (in the Manifesto), participated (in revolution! but only as a newspaper editor), exiled, tried (to make a living), remained (financially dependent on Engels), aimed (at underpinning his conception of communism with a theory of history that demonstrated capitalism was a transient form destined to break down and be superseded by…). The story ends with a much more abstract and still pretty confusing claim about Marx’s influence: “This study was never completed, but its first part, which was published as Capital in 1867, established him as the principal theorist of revolutionary socialism.” The International isn’t even mentioned. This is how, in the early twenty-first century, many of us are in the habit of thinking about Marx’s life. Engels predicted our dull view of Marx beautifully just after his friend’s death: “Marx’s life without the International,” he writes, in a letter to Marx’s daughter Laura, “would be like a diamond ring with the diamond broken out.”
One view of Marx is comic, the other tragic; both lack the history that gives order and purpose to his life. The idea of a “nineteenth-century life” determines Sperber’s simple and brilliant three-part structure. The titles of its three parts, “Shaping,” “Struggle” and “Legacy,” suggest three different stages of life as well as three different ways of relating to history. “Shaping” sets Marx on his revolutionary course by placing him in a revolutionary age, defined by living memories of revolution, by hopes and fears that it wasn’t yet over. “Struggle” begins with The Communist Manifesto and the revolutions of 1848, depicting Marx as insurgent, exile, observer and activist, pushing back or retreating from the rhythms of history: the massive liberal and democratic uprisings across Europe, the decade of reaction and resurgent capitalism in the 1850s, the global financial crisis of 1857, the unification of Germany under Prussian rule, and the great-power struggles that culminated in the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War. “Legacy” has one chapter on Marx’s last decade, showing him still learning, still trying to fathom a time that may be passing him by, but mostly it abandons chronology to analyze the three volumes of Capital, Marx’s personal life as an adult and his communist afterlife. This elegant form, with its slowly shifting perspective, captures the incredible scale of the changes that Marx lived through without lapsing into the picaresque.
Sperber presumes a strong interest in Marx and his time but not much prior knowledge, and he works actively to disarm and provoke Marxists in particular; he doesn’t see history as just class struggle and doesn’t think Marx saw it that way, either. The book’s early chapters in particular are full of new details and feisty polemics. Marx wasn’t just too clever or too rebellious to be happy studying law; the market for lawyers was in crisis, with many graduates forced into unpaid posts. The problem with his engagement to Jenny von Westphalen wasn’t their difference in class or complexion, as has long been assumed, but that she was four years older and had no dowry, which explains some of his ambition. Trivial details like these build up to one of the most original moments of the book, its closing reflections on Marx’s “manhood.” Many biographers have promised to tear down the myths and give us “Marx, the man,” but who ever stops to ask what manhood meant to Marx? This is a perceptive question, given the role that age and gender play in labor politics, and the association of Marx with macho things like struggle, rigor and beards. But manhood for Marx also meant, for example, the capacity to love. Modern culture makes us small and weak and indecisive, he wrote to his wife of twelve years, but love “makes the man once again into a man.”
Sperber’s broader historical point of view also restores Marx’s journalism to the key role it played in how Marx saw his own life. Marx, who first read Hegel when he was 19, had hoped that his friendship with the Hegelian theologian Bruno Bauer would help him get a professorship, but his prospects as a professional philosopher ended abruptly when the Christian conservative Frederick William IV took the throne in 1840 and purged the university of Hegelians, whom he saw as a threat to church and state. Marx’s father’s death from tuberculosis left him with debts that were greater than his share of the inheritance, so he postponed his marriage and began to write for the Rhineland News, a liberal newspaper in Cologne backed by Protestant merchants and bankers whose main preoccupation was free trade. Here Marx found himself, as he would later put it, “in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what are known as material interests.”
Sperber illustrates this embarrassment with an overlooked article about a glut in the Moselle Valley wine market. In the spirit of his bourgeois patrons, Marx blames the Prussian bureaucracy more than the recently liberalized market, but he offers no actual policy prescriptions of his own, concluding that the answer lies in more criticism of the government. Although he describes the press in hyperbolic terms (“the everywhere-open eye of the people’s spirit,” “all-sided, omnipresent, omniscient”) that ground his early Hegelianism in a real enthusiasm for a burgeoning public sphere, Marx was not yet a radical democrat. He “assiduously courted” and impressed the Rhenish liberal bourgeoisie, Sperber argues, absorbing their economic views while also making a name for himself. When the Prussian censors shut the paper down in 1843, partly for Marx’s attack on the government’s bureaucracy, the offer of a job as co-editor of a new journal in Paris, the Franco-German Yearbooks, made it possible at last for him to get married, conceive his first child, and move with his pregnant wife to the fashionable neighborhood of Faubourg Saint-Germain. The way the Marxes’ marriage contract allocated past debts and future assets, Sperber notes, might shed light on the power dynamics of the relationship: any future inheritance (which Marx was still expecting, and Jenny was not) became common property, while prior debts remained the private responsibility of each.
Marx’s experience at the Rhineland News left him skeptical about the prospects for liberal reform in Germany but also unsure about the alternatives: “The question ‘where from?’ presents no problems,” he wrote at the time, but “the question ‘where to?’ is a rich source of confusion.” His return to Hegel’s political philosophy to wrestle with terms like “civil society,” “democracy” and “human emancipation” began a five-year period of reflection and frantic collaboration; even the style of his writing suggests the accelerating pace of history and the disorientation of moving from the “all-knowing” German public sphere to the diverse international coalition that contemporaries would soon call “the party of movement.” This is the most abstract part of the story, and the most controversial, too, because it involves the origins of The Communist Manifesto, and thus the pamphlet’s ostensible claim to truth. Sperber helps ground this period by correcting some distortions left over from old polemics about the “young Marx.” He draws attention, for example, to the large part of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts that nobody reads, the economic part, claiming that some of Marx’s ostensibly radical views about the limits of capitalism and its effects on the poor were at the time economic orthodoxy, easily found, as Marx found them, in the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
The real turning point in Marx’s life, Sperber wagers, wasn’t an “epistemological break” in which Marx and Engels suddenly discovered a whole new Science of History, but the revolution itself, which was a turning point for the century, too. As the author of two great books on 1848, one surveying the continent and the other focusing on the unusually diverse uprising in the Rhineland, where Marx established his base of operations that spring, Sperber is at his most confident here, producing what must be the definitive portrait of Marx as a democratic insurgent. Marx wasn’t trying to organize a vast international conspiracy; he wanted to help overthrow Prussian absolutism, rushing back to Cologne soon after the republic was declared in France.
For someone with no political experience, Marx was a pretty decent revolutionary, leading regional democratic clubs and winning a national readership for his New Rhineland News: Organ of Democracy; he seems to be a failure only if he is judged by modern ideas of what a communist should set out to achieve. The Communist League, the secret society that wrote the Manifesto, spontaneously combusted in the heat of the moment, leaving each member to foment revolution (or not) in his own way; later, when some of Marx’s allies tried to run the Cologne Workers’ Association—a large group with about 8,000 members, or one-third of the city’s adult men—it collapsed, with one worker complaining of “historical and statistical remarks, which just about took up all the remaining time in the meeting.” But Marx eventually helped convince Cologne’s proud labor movement to support democrats in the “bourgeois” revolutionary parliaments rather than boycott the elections and hand power to the Catholics as in the past. This classic double bind is near the heart of Marx’s political thought and would recur in various forms throughout his life.
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By placing 1848 at the start of the second section, “Struggle,” Sperber suggests that Marx’s later identity was forged in the experience of revolution, somewhat as his father’s had been. Marx became increasingly militant as the wave began to break in 1849 and pre-revolutionary governments regained control. He finally threw his last hopes to the workers and, from the sidelines as an exile in London, rejected “bourgeois efforts to calm things down.” Once it was over, though, he became withdrawn and retrospective, trying to sort out what had happened, and the dialectical generalities of his earlier writing became transformed into the rich ironies and subtle sociology of The Eighteenth Brumaire, his account of the 1851 coup in which Louis-Napoleón Bonaparte declared himself emperor of France. Sperber enlivens the usually gloomy part of the story when Marx is broke in London with vivid accounts of refugee politics and a moral re-evaluation of Marx’s grim personal finances, as well as one tantalizing counterfactual: he notes that Marx thought about moving to America. One of Marx’s revolutionary comrades in Cologne became a professor of pediatric medicine at Columbia; another associate became a prominent architect in Washington, DC. What might Marx have become if he could have afforded the ticket?
It was in the United States that most of his writing first appeared in the years between his revolution and our Civil War, in the pages of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and it was in his American journalism that Marx was at his most global and most grounded. He wrote about “actually-existing capitalism,” including colonialism in India and China and the first worldwide recession, rather than its idealized form. In his youth, Marx considered politics to be a fight between the forces of change and the status quo, but later it often meant choosing between monarchs. When Napoleon III invaded Austrian territory in northern Italy, was it a welcome step toward Italian liberation or a contemptible act of imperialist aggression, which by weakening the Hapsburg Empire might strengthen the power of the czar? These kinds of questions might seem merely historical to us, but they defined the shape of the left in Marx’s time. This one, for example, made it harder for Marx to work with the flamboyant German labor leader Ferdinand Lassalle, and it led to his vicious polemic against Karl Vogt, a left-wing, anti-Austrian professor of zoology at the University of Geneva. That fight, in turn, put Marx in contact with some future members of the International Workingmen’s Association, which was founded at a rally in support of Polish independence.
In the International, Marx played a mediating role between the British trade unions—the backbone of the group—and the International’s more radical affiliates on the continent, including many secret societies in places where unions were mostly banned. His legendary fight with the anarchist followers of Mikhail Bakunin, Sperber argues, was less about whether to smash the state than about the role that secrecy should play within opposition movements. Marx expressed his position on the question of the state in his enthusiastic writing on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France (1871), with its celebration of the decentralized, direct and not particularly socialist democracy that was briefly established in the capital after France lost the Franco-Prussian War. Sperber argues that this marks the beginning of the end of Marx’s association with his unionized allies in the International, and it may have been an attempt “to preserve a glorious vision of communist revolution for a future in which he would no longer play a role.”
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Near the end of his 1927 double biography of Marx and Engels, David Riazanov reminds his readers that the two men were mortal. “We all enjoy the thought,” he writes, “that those whom we have regarded with great reverence and awe are after all people like ourselves, only a bit wiser, more educated, and more useful to the cause of the revolution.” Riazanov, who was then the director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, goes on to mention that Marx liked to drink wine and smoke cheap tobacco, but a touch of irony and a genuine sense of wonder keeps this snapshot from slipping into Us Magazine territory. (“Karl Marx! He’s Just Like Us!”) Good humor also runs through Wheen’s Karl Marx (2001), a well-meaning attempt at a “popular” biography, but the humor is no longer humanizing, in part because there is so much more distance between Marx’s time and ours. In his introduction, Sperber draws a sharp distinction between treating Marx as a contemporary and treating him as belonging to an era very different and increasingly distant from our own. There are times, he argues, when anachronism has been enlightening; he cites the example of Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, by Boris Nicolaevsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen, published in 1936 and saturated with the history of its time. Sperber calls it “well worth reading” although “rarely cited, for its title is embarrassing to contemporary sensibilities.” In contrast, with a force that may surprise and even offend some readers, Sperber ridicules the way that many of us have come to view Marx as an analyst of the global political economy in which we live: “Here it seems appropriate to ask,” he writes, “how a mortal human being, and not a wizard—Karl Marx, and not Gandalf the Grey—could successfully look 150 or 160 years into the future.” Unlike others who set out to tear down some monolithic “myth” of Marx, Sperber focuses on combating the popular idea that we can read Marx in order to understand how global capitalism “really works” today.
Now is the time for Sperber to pick this fight, when our current economic circumstances might lead us back to Capital, but the book itself seems antiquated. In the two critical chapters on Capital that begin “Legacy,” one on its epistemology and the other on its economics, Sperber discusses in detail some sticking points—Marx’s attempts to relate values to prices, to show how surplus value is captured as rent, and to prove the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—that mark Capital as belonging to an earlier era of economics and to a world that worked differently from our own. Sperber’s point of view might be distilled into his claim that the famous line of The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air,” is a “mistranslation,” because the original, Das stehende und das ständische verdampft, had a reference to Stände (estates) and Dampf (steam), a politics and a technology belonging to the past: literally, it might read, “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate.”
Marx’s was a time of princes and peasants, not just capitalists and proletarians. This is good to remember, but it might also mislead. When most of us misunderstand the Manifesto, it’s not only because we overlook words like Stände and Dampf, but because we overlook words like Demokratie. Our problem isn’t that we see Marx as a contemporary but that we see him as Marx, a known entity, hardly worth reading closely because we already know what he says. Sperber’s steady emphasis on historical difference helps check that assumption, as when he observes that Marx eschewed the socialist term “comrade,” preferring to sign his letters “Citizen Marx.” It produces balanced, fresh biography, putting the reader at ease and stimulating open-minded curiosity.
But at times this emphasis conflicts with biographical common sense. Why should a biographer focus on peripheral technicalities in Capital rather than the questions that led Marx to write the book and that dominate Volume I—for instance, questions about how wages are affected by free trade, labor law, technology and immigration. Sperber doesn’t appear to want to relate Marx to his time as a whole, but only to those parts of it that seem old-fashioned. In “Shaping,” he emphasizes influences on Marx rather than Marx’s own questions and personal interests in a way that seems reductive. Complicated currents such as Hegelianism, Jacobinism and classical political economy are supposed to have guided Marx in implausibly simple ways, without much digestion or even deeply motivated curiosity on Marx’s part. If the young Marx has influences but not also doubts, questions, an earnest need to understand his world, he comes off as an insufferable pedant, reading all the same books as everyone else but enigmatically presuming that everyone else is reading them wrong. We also miss the role that the shared pursuit of truth, so passionatelydefended in his early journalism, played in Marx’s intellectual and political relationships, particularly with Engels, as well as with others less educated or cultured than Marx himself.
Maybe Sperber could not have captured the animating messiness of Marx’s world without throwing his book off balance and muddying the clear impression it gives of Marx’s political priorities and enduring personal values, which are rendered with symphonic richness in the final chapters. Marx’s last decade was another period of international economic chaos, with energized labor movements and ruthless colonial expansion marking the beginning of what historians once called the Great Depression of the nineteenth century. By then, history really was passing the veteran by, and he participated in it less directly, as a critical adviser to the socialist parties of the new German nation-state and as a correspondent with socialists in France and Russia. His views continued to evolve as his health deteriorated rapidly. In 1882, hoping that a change in climate would improve his health, Marx set out on one of his final adventures, spending three months in Algiers.
Earlier biographers don’t say much about this trip, except that it was cold and wet in Algiers that spring. McLellan mentions that Marx got a shave and a haircut. He also sat for a photograph, which Werner Blumenberg’s Karl Marx: An Illustrated History uses to portray “the fatigued state of this great mind.” Marx “seldom bothered to read the newspapers,” Wheen writes, “preferring to visit the botanical gardens, chat to fellow hotel guests, or simply to gaze out to sea. What use were his materialism and dialectics now?”
Sperber agrees that Marx was in rough shape, but in his version of this scene, nearly everything else is otherwise. Rather than gazing out to sea, Marx studies the paradoxes of the exotic landscape, with its “snow-capped mountains in the background, the profusion of flowers even in winter.” He is amazed by the human diversity: “Moors, Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Negroes, in a word by this Babel.” His guide in Algiers is a judge on the court of appeals, a deported French radical who describes the role of torture in the colonial legal system. When an Arab is executed for murder, Marx wryly notes, the French “demand that into the bargain a half dozen innocent Arabs have their heads just a little bit cut off.”
Marx’s dying looks different in A Nineteenth-Century Life, slower and still attuned to the world around him. From Algiers, he goes to Monte Carlo, where he eyes the well-dressed women and ridicules the intricately absurd systems the gamblers use to try to beat the house—another moment passed over by previous biographers, although they had the same letters available to them. For those who see Marx as a contemporary, the end of his life may be the hardest part to write or even to imagine. It contradicts our preconceptions. The bad weather might almost kill him, and so might his cheap tobacco, but dying isn’t something that â¨Karl Marx is supposed to do.