Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life Hardcover – 3 May 2013
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"Jonathan Sperber's excellent biography succeeds splendidly in reshaping our image of the man and his thoughts." --Ian Kershaw
In what will probably be the definitive biography of Karl Marx for years to come, [Sperber] reminds us that Marx was a 19th-century man, his life much closer to the French Revolution than to the Russian. --Prospect Magazine
[Sperber] has given us a Marx for the post-Marxist age, a superb 21st-century biography that sets its subject firmly in his 19th-century context but also explains why his legacy continues to be fought over. --London Review of Books
Sperber seeks to understand and explain Marx purely within the context of his times [...] and he succeeds magnificently in this task. --The Telegraph
About the Author
Jonathan Sperber, the author of The European Revolutions: 1848-1851, is the Curators' Professor of History at the University of Missouri. He has written extensively on the social and political history of nineteenth-century Europe.
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Top Customer Reviews
Marx’ ideas are thought by many to be universal, and they have indeed been adapted and applied to situations and ideologies throughout the 20th century. It is, however, difficult to escape the fact that Marx was long dead at that point; he could have no opinion about those changing times long after his passing. More than describing a utopic future, he was doing social analyses for his contemporary age. This is the main point in Jonathan Sperber’s ”Karl Marx: a nineteenth-century life”. Sperber places Marx squarely in the society of the 19th century, and underlines the point that everything he did must be seen in the light of his contemporary age. Over the next hundred years, social thinkers, revolutionaries and philosophers alike have placed the marxist ideas in a 20th century context, often leaping straight over the fact that Marx’ life and works should instead be seen in the light of his own times.
It’s a fairly big book, this: Sperber bases much of his work on the MEGA, a wealth of information consisting of all known writings made by Marx and Engels, be it published papers, newspapers, minutes of meetings or family letters. It is evident that Sperber is not only trained in the use of sources, but revels in the interpretation of them.Read more ›
Marx as person comes across as highly opinionated, egotistical, and tyrannical. He deployed the fierce widespread crude denunciation of anyone he disagreed with which was to become the devastating hallmark of later Soviet and Chinese communism. Similarly, Marx is strong when in opposition, ie to capitalism, but weak in any advocacy or even definition of what he favours, ie communism.
Where he rules, for example in his family life, Marx is benign, but he is an irascible colleague and correspondent. He worked diligently and furiously, famously developing his thinking more through library research than through peer engagement. His output was prodigious, but thereby confusing as he developed his thought, for example on price in a market economy, almost like someone thinking aloud. He might have communicated his theoretical thinking more powerfully by a smaller, less frequent, more considered output.
Sperber traces the shift in Marx's thinking from an intellectual reliance on Hegel's metaphysical interpretation towards the emerging logical positivism of his time. Engels espoused the latter and is responsible for the more analytical version of the inevitability of a crisis in capitalism and the advent of communism. This is part of a wider intellectual issue of the active or passive existential standing of humanity which Marx and Engels needed to explore more explicitly. In his critique of capitalism Marx failed to consider the fundamental flaw in humanity itself, what Isaiah Berlin later called `the crooked timber of humanity', which was to plague communism as much as it did capitalism, the working class as much as the aristocracy.
I never encountered an undergraduate who, while claiming they were marxists, had read 'The Communist Manifesto', 'Das Kapital' or The Eighteenth Brumaire', yet they all felt free to quote (misquote) from these works.
Marx was a very good social scientist but a very poor historian. As a predictor of the future he was a complete failure. He made it clear that while Philosophers had interpreted the world he would change it by revolution. He had little time for theory; he was only interested in ACTION.
The 'Communist Manifesto' written in 1848 with Engels is a slim work of under 12,000 words yet it had a profound effect on 20th century history. His key message was that proletarians had 'a world to win'. Sperber tells us that Marx hoped to see a recurrence of the French Revolution. His ideas were based on a distinctive economic theory of historical progress; they proved to be flawed. Recent attempts by his admirers to resurrect his views on capitalism because of the economic and financial world crisis have not been convincing despite the fact that he did make some very cogent points about the inherent weaknesses of the capitalism of the 19th century. In 2008 The Times had a headline that said: 'He's Back!'. It failed to mention however that what Marx meant by 'capitalism' was not what we mean by it today. It was not, as Sperber points out, an analysis of global capitalists. This error arises because of poor translations from the original German. It should be remembered that many of the famous quotations in his writings were in fact plagiarised. For example, 'Workers of the World, unite!Read more ›
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