Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber (Norton, £25)
Whether you believe he is the man who predicted the financial crisis or the antichrist behind Obamacare, most of us view Karl Marx through the prism of our own time. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers you could buy a t-shirt emblazoned with his iconic image proclaiming, “I told you so.” Jonathan Sperber, a scholar of 19th-century history, thinks this is absurd. How could somebody born 195 years ago tell us anything about 21st-century capitalism? In what will probably be the definitive biography of Karl Marx for years to come, he reminds us that Marx was a 19th-century man, his life much closer to the French Revolution than to the Russian.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life gives us a very different portrait from the one we have come to expect. Marx was more a German nationalist, a bourgeois paterfamilias, a freelance journalist and a rather insignificant political activist than the theoretician of revolution we think of today. His hatred of Prussia and his fear of Tsarist Russia led him into opinions and alliances that now seem utterly un-Marxist.
Marx was born in the Rhineland, a few years after the Napoleonic wars. The Congress of Vienna had given the Catholic Rhineland to Protestant and absolutist Prussia, much to the dismay of its more moderate citizens. The colonial relationship between Marx’s birthplace and Berlin imbued him with a loathing of the Prussian crown that may well have been his deepest political passion.
As a young man his primary desire was to find regular employment so that he could marry. His politics and his temperament made an academic career unlikely so at 23 he became a journalist, writing for and soon editing the Rhineland News, a liberal paper funded by Cologne’s bourgeois elite. The paper was a success, perhaps too much of one. It attracted the attention of the Prussian authorities and within a year Marx was forced into exile. One wonders how different the world would be today had Prussian bureaucrats tolerated his relatively moderate objections to their rule. In all likelihood, Marx would have joined the liberal establishment and lived and died a proper bourgeois.
Instead, life in exile radicalised him. Even in Paris and Brussels, Marx was mostly preoccupied by the political situation in Germany. In 1848, the revolution he longed for finally broke out and he returned to Cologne. For just one year, “Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary,” editing a radical newspaper, leading the left-wing democrats of the city, and trying to organise the Rhineland’s working class. The crushing of the 1848 revolution dashed his hopes and sent him into a financially troubled exile in London that lasted until his death 34 years later.
Living with his wife and children in a small flat on Dean Street in Soho, his English still rudimentary, Marx struggled to make a living. This was perhaps the toughest time of his life. Absolutism was reascendant, his political ambitions were dashed and he was barely able to support his large family. Freelance journalism, along with occasional advances on his inheritance and regular financial help from Engels, kept him from penury. The theoretical work that made him famous probably mattered less to Marx than eking out a living and maintaining a foothold in the German political exile community.
Sperber explains that Marx was the last of the great classical economists, deeply in debt to the thinking of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Marx’ economics, like his Hegelian philosophy, were based on the dominant theories of early 19th-century academia. By the 1870s, marginalism in economics and positivism in philosophy had superseded them but Marx, like most of us, remained wedded to the theories of his student days. The labour theory of value, which has spawned reams of tedious theorising by Marxist intellectuals, was a classical concept that became outdated right about the time Marx was writing Das Kapital. By the end of the 19th century, economists realised that newfangled notions of supply and demand determined price, not the amount of labour “embedded” in a commodity. It is a historical anomaly that radical economics of the 20th century should retain theories that had been mainstream in 1820s Britain and then superseded.
Sperber’s biography reminds us that during his lifetime, Marx was a marginal figure. He spent most of his life exiled from Germany, the centre of his political concerns, and was only occasionally the leader of political organizations, none of them particularly significant. It is remarkable that in the decades after his death he became the leading thinker of the socialist movement, idolised and loathed by millions. Sperber suggests that it was Engels that managed to popularise his friend’s ideas with the leaders of a rising working class.
Like Jesus, Buddha and Adam Smith, Karl Marx was a historical figure whose insights remain valuable today. For me, the most important thing about Marx is that he understood capitalism’s propensity for crises of overproduction. But then Hyman Minsky, a disciple of Keynes, understood that even better and in more useful detail. Read Minsky (or Keynes) to see where we are today. Read Sperber’s biography of Marx to glimpse a world different from our own.