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.