Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber


book on marxNearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the specter of Karl Marx continues to haunt our presses and blog posts. Supporters and opponents present Marxism as a modern ideology and a coherent body of thought. Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, argues that although Marx did intend to bring about a future different from his present, the German thinker was essentially a creature of that present. Drawing on the complete edition of the writings and Engels known by a German acronym as MEGA, a source that only became available after the end of the Cold War, Sperber maintains that Marx wrote in reaction to the events of his own day, that his thinking shifted over the decades, and that in basic assumptions Marx looked backward, in particular to the French Revolution.

This new biography is impressive for its detail and insight. Among other virtues, it provides an excellent portrait of Marx as a human being. Irascible, sarcastic, and prone to personal attacks on those with whom he disagreed, he was also a doting parent to his legitimate children and devoted husband (despite fathering an unacknowledged and neglected illegitimate son with the family servant). Dedicated to the cause of revolution, he was no bohemian, but struggled to maintain a bourgeois way of life for his family through economic hardship.

Sperber’s two most valuable contributions, in my view, consist in the discussion of the role of the French Revolution in Marx’s thought and in the description of the tension between Marx’s Hegelianism and positivism. Until the 1851 coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte finished off hopes that the 1848 revolutionary movement would be a more successful and thorough repetition of 1789, Marx pinned his hopes on just such a recapitulation of history. Revolution in France would spark a continental revolutionary movement that would create unified republics in his native Germany and elsewhere, explode into another revolutionary war against reactionary Russia, and establish the rule of Jacobin terrorists. This new upheaval, though, would not lead to another Napoleon, though, but move onward to communism.

After the new Bonaparte seized power as Napoleon III, though, Marx moved away from his faith in the French Revolution as a strict model. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, coining his famous phrase that historical events occur first as tragedy and second as farce, Marx attacked French radicals for seeing 1848 as another 1789. Sperber points out that lashing out against those who held positions that had been his own was Marx’s usual way of changing his mind. Despite his abandonment of the French Revolution as the pattern for the future, though, throughout his life Marx continued to conceive of the coming uprising in terms of two stages, a liberal seizure of power followed by Jacobin radicalism. Thus, even after his rejection of the French Revolution as model for the future, Marx continued to look backward at the seminal event of the eighteenth century.

Originally an aspiring academic in Hegelian Germany, Marx saw history as progressing according to an internal logic. He famously believed that he had found Hegel standing on his head, since the master portrayed events as the working out of ideas, and put the older philosopher on his feet, by casting material relations among people within events as the driving forces of history’s internal logic. Still, Marx’s theories came from deductive reasoning about the movement of history, not from inductive considerations of empirical observations. Sperber finds that Marx became more of a positivist later in his life and gave greater emphasis to economic facts and details. As a materialist, Marx was also drawn to the increasing scientism of his century. This positivism rested uneasily with Hegelian abstraction.

In particular, the tension between Marx’s Hegelianism and his positivism affected his attitude toward the theories of Charles Darwin. While Marx was somewhat favorably impressed with Darwin, he was less enthusiastic about Darwinian evolution than later generations of readers have believed. Unlike many in his own time, Marx understood that Darwin offered no promise of progress: species change through adaptations to an environment. The species do not necessarily become higher or more complex. The revolutionary thinker tried to reconcile his own ideas of progressive historical stages with evolution by turning to obscure revisions of Darwinian thought. Only after Marx’s death did Engels create the image of Marx as an uninhibited admirer of Darwin and as the equivalent for social thought of the founder of evolution.

Much of what we now know as Marxism began as the reformulation and codification of Marx’s thought by his friend, collaborator, and supporter, Friedrich Engels. When a mass labor movement took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, its leaders took over Engels’s ordering and interpretation of Marx’s vast body of work. These leaders then shaped Marxism as an ideology and a political movement.

In the last sentence, Sperber remarks that “Marx’s passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and intransigent nature has been the feature of his life that has had the deepest and most resonant appeal, and has generated the sharpest rebukes and opposition, down to the present day” (p.560). While Marx’s oppositional personality did help to make him a symbol of resistance, I think those attracted to doctrines associated with him and those who have rejected those doctrines have been moved by more than the symbolism of character. Throughout his life, Marx sought to uncover a secret code that would be the key to understanding all economic and social relations. The idea that such a universal code is attainable and that it can be found in Marx’s ruminations motivated Engels and subsequent adherents and interpreters. Related to this effort at discovering the theoretical key to human history, Marx attempted to reduce human interactions and relations to identifiable systems that could be replaced by other systems. Having found the secret of history, one could replace the messy reality of market transactions and pursuit of multiple group and individual interests with the ideal system of harmony and productivity. This commitment to an alternative realm, I think, is the reason that Leszek Kolakowski began his Main Currents of Marxism by deriving modern Marxist thought from ancient gnosticism. This pursuit of an another world has made Marx’s work an appealing starting point for utopians. The goal of total change has also meant, though, that the tendency toward totalitarianism has been inherent to his legacy.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Amazon.com Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2013 Carl L. Bankston III.

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