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Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, 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
From the Inside Flap
For nearly a century, Karl Marx has been imprisoned by "isms", misinterpreted through the writings of Engels and the totalitarian aspirations of Lenin and Stalin. Challenging this antiquated portrait, Jonathan Sperber demonstrates that Marx had more in common with Robespierre than with twentieth-century Communists. Using the recently opened complete Marx and Engels database, Sperber juxtaposes the private man against the public agitator who helped foment the 1848-49 Revolution and whose incendiary books inflamed the dissident world of Europe. Sperber not only animates Marx's personal life but also presents Marx's story against a backdrop of contemporaries. Like Peter Gay's Freud and Ian Kershaw's Hitler, Karl Marx becomes the defining portrait of a towering historical figure.See all Product description
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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. He spends much of his time using the MEGA to unveil and deal with details of Marx life, including his family life, economic situation and working life in addition to the development of his political ideas. The exchange of opinions between friends and rivals, issues both big and small, give the reader a thoroughly deep look into what made Marx tick. As his ideas were changing over time with changing political and economic developments, you can see how much the contemporary situation matters in the forming of ideas. This book truly emphasizes that Marx was a man of his time.
It should be noted that this is not an in-depth analysis of various Communist ideas or social theory. Sperber sticks with his subject. Still, Marx’ relationship with other socialists are covered, and it is interesting to see how much he was influenced by personal matters. This is perhaps best illustrated by the conflict between Marx and Karl Grün, another revolutionary intellectual with many of the same characteristics. As Sperber points out, one might think that two such similar characters would find done another appealing and start working out a social theory together, but instead, they became rivals, both wanting a central position in the Communist movement. This book also describes relationships between other intellectuals and revolutionaries, where Marx might end up embracing or rejecting their ideas, based (at least in part) on personal grounds – indeed, possibly even whether his wife got along well with them. Reading Sperber’s work, we are constantly reminded that ”the father of Communism” was but one of many people at the time who were working for a social revolution, and that his work is tied to the political development in Western Europe – but also that personal experiences and rivalry could be just as important in shaping his ideas.
The book is divided into sections, each dealing with Marx as a man, as a father, as a revolutionary, as a political thinker, as a news editor – so many areas of a man’s life that can all have an impact. ’Who knows’, you are left to ponder, ’perhaps Marx had not developed his revolutionary stance if he had not experienced suppression of his work by Preussian authorities?’ Perhaps his ideological legacy had been less potent if his personal economic situation were better and he had been able to develop his work as a newspaper editor?
Sperber outlines philosophies, but stays true to the intention of writing a biography, not an interpretation of Marxist ideology. Rather than focus on his work alone, as many other biographers do, Sperber’s focal point is the life of his subject. ”Karl Marx: a nineteenth-century life” is a truly interesting and enlightening look into the life one of the most important thinkers of modern times.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
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.
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