Marx in context

A new biography of Karl Marx puts him back into his 19th-century frame of reference, so that his ideas are understood as they would have been by his contemporaries.

marx and sad_521(do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
marx and sad_521(do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
In 1850 the revolutionary intellectual Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels found themselves poor and in exile in London. Their friends came up with a radical solution: Go to America. But they dithered, realizing that Europe was the center of their activity.
“For other nineteenth century German radicals, the trip across the Atlantic was a one-way political journey; none of them ever played a role in European politics again,” writes author Jonathan Sperber.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life is the latest biography of one of the 19th century’s most important intellectual figures and one whose ideas cast a dark shadow over the 20th century and continue to influence academics and politics. Sperber, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, is perfectly placed to bring out a new biography of the famous communist because he previously wrote a history of Europe’s revolutionary turmoil of 1848, in which Marx played a role. The biographer also had access to the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, a collection of Marx’s writings and articles on them that have been “little used or not at all in previous biographies,” notes Sperber.
The main contribution of this book is to put Marx back into his 19thcentury context, so that his ideas are understood as they would have been by his contemporaries, rather than with the hindsight that they would wreak such monumental changes on the world.
Marx was born in the German city of Trier in 1818. Many writers have claimed he was descended from “a long line of Trier rabbis,” but Sperber points out that in fact, “as so often with instances of common knowledge about Marx’s life, this one is only half-true.”
Marx’s father was an attorney and changes in laws prohibited Jews from working in the judiciary in the 1810s.
Heinrich Marx thus took the momentous decision to change his religion to Protestantism.
Sperber notes that this was typical of the times in Trier: “most of the leading families... had converted to Christianity by the 1830s.”
Thus Marx was raised a Protestant in a relatively Catholic city. That he was a Protestant was due to the fact that his father was an adherent of the Enlightenment ideas sweeping across Europe after the French Revolution.
Marx attended university in Bonn and eventually married a Christian woman from a good family.
Marx was originally influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Georg Hegel.
When he first read Hegel he noted “A curtain had fallen, my most sacred had been torn apart and new gods had to be inserted.”
Marx remembers that he “ran like mad in the garden on the filthy water of the Spree [a river]... ran to Berlin and wanted to embrace every day laborer standing on street corners.”
Sperber notes that these men who became devotees of the new philosophy “combined deeply earnest intellectual speculation with a raucous and bohemian lifestyle.” They seem to remind us of coffee-house intellectuals, sitting around and talking revolution.
In the time of Marx the talk of revolution was no idle chitchat. The young radical gave up a career in academics, where he had received a PhD, and decided to become a freelance writer. He moved to Cologne and began working as editor for Rheinische Zeitung.
When we think of Communism today we think of the brutal Stalinist state or North Korea. Ironically, Marx’s first job was writing for a newspaper founded by nouveau riche capitalists which supported “effective legislation... for a constitution guaranteeing basic rights, such as freedom of the press, and liberal hostility to the society of orders,” writes Sperber.
He might have been mistaken for pursuing a similar policy as the founding fathers of the US. His ideas at the time ran afoul of the Prussian state and he was forced to move to Paris and then London.
Throughout his time as a revolutionary Marx was never at the forefront of the fighting, or getting to know the “working man” he advocated for. “Marx had much more success in founding a radical political newspaper than in organizing the working class,” notes the author.
Those organizations he was involved with, such as the International Working Men’s Association supported what seemed like reasonable policies today: “a shorter workday, limitations on women’s and children’s labor, the replacement of indirect with direct taxation.”
One of the issues that has always surrounded the topic of Marx is whether he was an anti-Semite. Marx had written that “the worldly cult of the Jew was haggling and bargaining.” He claimed that capitalism had arisen out of “Jewish economic practices” because Jewish peddlers sold people “superfluous, useless and defective” products. Sperber defends Marx in his characterization, noting “Marx believed that Jews should have equality... he also believed that the movement from a democratic and republican order to a communist one would involve eliminating from society those obnoxious Jewish characteristics that enemies of Jewish emancipation were using to disqualify Jews from citizenship.”
This is hard stuff to stomach, and it is difficult to understand the logic. Later in life Marx penned a letter to his friend Engels condemning Ferdinand Lassalle, the socialist activist. He claimed that the shape of Lassalle’s head “stems from the Negroes who joined the march of Moses out of Egypt” but noted that his dark features could also have resulted if someone in his family “mated with a nigger... the pushiness of this lad is also nigger-like.”
This is vile language, and Sperber notes “it shows the inconsistency between his public advocacy of anti-racist policies and his private ventilation of racial stereotypes.”
One feels the author is excusing too much. Marx was a racist, and his views were tinged with anti-Semitism.
This book is an interesting and accessible read that brings color to Marx’s life. It provides insights into 19th century Europe and does not bog the reader down with the complicated and exhaustive examination of Marx’s intellectual works.