[Marxism] LRB review of Sperber bio of Karl Marx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 16 16:34:39 MDT 2013

London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 10 · 23 May 2013

Marx v. The Rest
Richard J. Evans

     Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
     Norton, 648 pp, £25.00, May, ISBN 978 0 87140 467 1

Do we need another biography of Marx to go alongside the many we already 
have? The justification given by Jonathan Sperber is compelling. 
Previous accounts of Marx’s life have gone one of two ways. Either he is 
seen as a prophet of modern times, a seer whose theories help us 
understand the predicament we are in, especially in times of economic 
crisis, an inspiration to everyone who wishes to see state and society 
emancipated and transformed. Or, alternatively, he was a misguided and 
misguiding ideologue whose theories have been responsible for some of 
the worst crimes of the 20th century. This book aims to scrape away the 
patina of retrospective polemic to reveal Marx in the context of his own 
times. Sperber’s career as a social and political historian has centred 
on the Rhineland in the mid-19th century, but he has also produced 
wide-ranging and authoritative surveys of modern European history, 
including a comprehensive study of the 1848 Revolutions. It quickly 
becomes clear that he is ideally qualified to carry out the task he has 
set himself.

He begins by emphasising, not Marx’s Jewish background, but the roots of 
his thought in the Enlightenment. He was born on the western fringes of 
Germany, in the small, declining provincial town of Trier, which for two 
decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period had been incorporated 
into France. The education he was given purveyed many of the central 
ideas of the Enlightenment, which had also been a source of inspiration 
for his father, Heinrich Marx, a lawyer who had demonstrated his 
intellectual boldness in the deeply conservative, Catholic milieu of 
Trier by converting from Judaism to a rationalistic form of Protestantism.

At Bonn University, where his father sent him to study law, Marx seems 
to have spent his time drinking and duelling, and his disappointed 
father dispatched him to Berlin in the hope that he would take his legal 
studies more seriously there. He became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, 
the daughter of a family friend. Jenny was not, as some biographers have 
claimed, his social superior; her father Ludwig von Westphalen had only 
recently been ennobled, and with a second-rank title. He had no fortune 
but depended on his salary as a minor bureaucrat, and without the 
prospect of a dowry, Jenny was not a good match. Scandal was caused only 
by the fact that, most unusually for a bourgeois marriage in 
19th-century Germany, she was four years older than Marx, who was still 
only 18 at the time of their engagement. Even as a young man, Marx 
defied convention.

Once in Berlin, Marx, like many of his fellow students, fell under the 
influence of Hegel, the ‘Prussian state philosopher’ who had occupied a 
chair at the university until he died in the cholera epidemic of 1831. 
Heinrich was not amused when his son sent him a long letter informing 
him that he had ‘chained’ himself ‘to the current world philosophy’. 
Marx’s father was in the last stages of tuberculosis, and died in May 
1838, after which his modest estate was divided up between his widow and 
surviving children according to the Napoleonic law that held sway in the 
Rhineland, leaving Marx with next to nothing. Back in Berlin, he fell in 
with the Young Hegelians, a loose group of intellectuals who, Sperber 
writes, ‘combined deeply earnest intellectual speculation with a raucous 
and bohemian lifestyle, in a way that proved very attractive to Marx’. 
Their attempts to apply the master’s philosophy to theology and Biblical 
criticism propelled them towards atheism and got them into trouble with 
the pious new king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who came to the 
throne in 1840 and turned the government’s educational policy in a more 
conservative direction. Denied university careers, the Young Hegelian 
thinkers moved rapidly to the left.
Felix Dennis Tour 2013

Sperber plays down the influence of Feuerbach, whom Marx never met; 
although his notes on Feuerbach’s writings were voluminous, the famous 
11th thesis (‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world: the 
point is to change it’) was buried among many others and never published 
in Marx’s lifetime. More to his taste was Bruno Bauer, a rough and 
aggressive man who brought him into the Young Hegelian circle. Back in 
Bonn after completing his studies, Marx followed Bauer in launching a 
public campaign in favour of atheism. Under the new Prussian regime, 
this spelled the end of any prospect of an academic career for either of 
them. Moving to nearby Cologne, Marx became a freelance journalist, 
writing articles for the recently founded Rhenish News. He won a 
reputation as a radical journalist, gaining admiration among the Young 
Hegelians and other left-wing intellectuals, the attention of the local 
middle-class elite, and the hostility of the Prussian state.

What made his name more widely was an article advocating freedom of the 
press, enthusiastically welcomed by liberals of all kinds across 
Prussia. But an article blaming the plight of winegrowing peasants in 
his native Moselle Valley on the economic policies of the Prussian 
government aroused the anger of the provincial governor of the 
Rhineland, and despite protests from the liberal shareholders, the paper 
was closed down in January 1843. Stymied in Prussia, Marx and his fellow 
Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge set up a new periodical, the Franco-German 
Yearbooks, based in Paris, where he now took up residence.

As the periodical’s salaried editor, he was now able to marry Jenny von 
Westphalen, which he did in June 1843, before the couple moved to 
France. Sperber points out, in a perceptive analysis of their 
correspondence, that the couple had already had sexual relations some 
time before this. By August, Jenny was pregnant; their first daughter 
was born in May 1844. Disposing briskly of some hoary legends, Sperber 
surmises that the impecuniousness of Jenny’s widowed mother was most 
likely responsible for the financial problems they faced already on 
their honeymoon. To make matters worse, the Yearbooks were a failure, 
not least because the Prussian authorities confiscated them when they 
reached the German border. Marx was rescued only by a generous donation 
from liberal supporters in Cologne.

On his return to Paris, he composed his famous, or notorious, essay ‘On 
the Jewish Question’, which has led to persistent charges of 
anti-semitism – ‘charges’, Sperber argues, ‘involving an anachronistic 
conception of both anti-semitism and Jews’. The tract was a contribution 
to a current debate on whether adherents of the Jewish faith – Jews – 
should be granted equal civil rights with Christians, as they had not 
been in most parts of Germany, reflecting their distinctive position in 
a traditional social hierarchy where every ‘order’ had its place. The 
everyday life and behaviour of Jews, Marx admitted, was based on greed 
and bargaining – and these were the essence of capitalism. Crucially, 
however, Marx did not use this stereotypical argument, as Bruno Bauer 
(and still more, the Christian conservatives of his day) did, to argue 
that the Jews should be denied civil rights. Indeed, he believed that 
the civil equality of the Jews as a minority religious group was a cause 
that democrats should fight for. Sperber rightly says that these 
arguments were a world away from the racial anti-semitism of the 20th 

Before Paris, Marx had moved in largely bourgeois circles, but now, 
Sperber notes, ‘he met working-class political activists, and spent time 
in taverns both with artisans belonging to illegal, secret societies and 
with members of legal mutual benefit associations.’ In his ‘Introduction 
to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’, Marx argued for the first 
time that the Young Hegelians’ criticism of religion was not enough. 
Religion was ‘the opium of the people’, diverting them from the 
realities of social and political alienation under a German ancien 
régime that would be overthrown, just as its French counterpart had been 
in 1789-94. This revolution would be carried out, he said, by the one 
class that had nothing to lose and so could claim to be universal: the 

Marx pursued these ideas in his unpublished ‘Paris Manuscripts’, which 
Sperber sees not as a contrast with the writings of the later, 
supposedly more dogmatic Marx, but rather as forming a Hegelian 
continuity with them. His reading of the English political economists 
made him pessimistic about the economic prospects of the working class. 
His reading of the French socialists, already begun in Cologne, led him 
to see the abolition of private property and the establishment of 
communal and collective forms of work as the way to overcome the 
alienation of the workers brought about by their employers’ 
appropriation of the products of their labour.

It was through socialising with radicals in Paris that Marx for the 
first time came into contact with Friedrich Engels. Born into a 
revivalist family near the lower Rhine, Engels had read the Young 
Hegelians and moved sharply to the left. His views were confirmed by his 
experience working for his father’s business partners in Manchester, 
where the crass contrasts of wealth and poverty in the new industrial 
city led him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England and 
to contribute to the Franco-German Yearbooks. In Paris, he sought out 
the editor and the two became friends. But the long arm of the Prussian 
police reached the French capital, and Marx was expelled, spending the 
next three years, from 1845 to 1848, in Belgium. Joining him in 
Brussels, Engels took Marx on a visit to England, where he met the 
members of a secret society of exiled German artisans, the League of the 
Just, along with Chartists and professional revolutionaries.

Around this time and partly in collaboration with Engels, Marx wrote and 
published The Holy Family, a polemical critique of the writings of Bruno 
Bauer, in which he denounced Bauer for his failure to engage with real 
economic and political issues. A second work from this period, The 
German Ideology, was not a book at all, but a jumble of manuscript 
drafts that remained almost entirely unpublished in Marx’s lifetime. 
Most of them were devoted to a furious attack on the egoist philosopher 
Max Stirner, a member of Bauer’s circle who had rejected revolution in 
favour of the transformation of individual consciousness. A third 
polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy, took on Proudhon for his failure to 
understand political economy. In all these writings, Sperber argues, 
Marx was actually engaging in criticism of his own earlier ideas as well 
as those of others, as he moved from an abstract Hegelianism to the 
concrete issues raised by political economy.

These polemics reflected in part the fractious mood of the émigré 
circles in Brussels in which Marx now moved. He quarrelled with 
revolutionaries like Wilhelm Weitling and Karl Grün, who failed to see 
the connection between the development of capitalist industry on the one 
hand and the genesis of communism on the other. ‘Ignorance has never yet 
helped anyone!’ Marx shouted at a meeting with Weitling, banging the 
table. Grün said Marx was an unkempt fanatic unable to support his 
family. Marx said Grün was a fraud and an opportunist whose idea of 
creating socialism through workers’ co-operatives flew in the face of 
economic facts.

Economic crisis hit Europe in the late 1840s, and Marx got into money 
trouble again, especially since his communist politics were finally 
beginning to alienate his wealthy bourgeois supporters in Cologne. He 
was brought out of the doldrums by the outbreak of revolutions across 
Europe in 1847-48. He had already engineered the transformation of the 
League of the Just into the Communist League, shifting its focus from 
conspiracy to open propaganda. As the revolutionary atmosphere 
intensified, he published the League’s statement of aims, drawing on 
previous drafts by Engels. This was the Communist Manifesto. As Sperber 
points out, its analysis focused sharply on the 1840s: capitalism was 
expanding relentlessly, creating an ever growing, ever more exploited 
working class that would come together to overthrow it: the bourgeoisie, 
he wrote, ‘produces above all its own gravedigger. Its decline and the 
victory of the proletariat are both equally inevitable.’

Sperber provides a new translation of the much discussed sentence in the 
Manifesto, ‘Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft’: ‘All that is solid 
melts into air’ in the standard English version but rendered by Sperber 
as ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of 
orders evaporate.’ What Marx had in mind was not some mystical process 
of transformation, but the dissolution of hierarchical Prussian society 
by the steam-power of industry. Political revolution leading to a 
communist regime, however, would be achieved on the lines of the French 
Revolution of the late 18th century: power would be seized from the 
bourgeoisie in a violent upheaval, not as in the relatively peaceful 
years of 1789-91, but following the example of the Revolution’s Jacobin 
phase, from 1792 to 1794.


Returning to Cologne in 1848 (he was arrested in Brussels and deported 
with his family), Marx found the city in uproar, with mass 
demonstrations and workers storming the City Hall under the direction of 
the communists, led by the physician Andreas Gottschalk, a man not 
prepared to brook any rivalry from the returning émigrés. Marx, who 
despised Gottschalk for his refusal to organise a proper insurrection to 
inaugurate a republic, left the communists and raised the money to found 
a newspaper, the New Rhenish News. As both editor and major shareholder, 
Marx used the paper to polemicise against not only the Prussian 
government but also the moderate liberal legislatures voted in across 
Germany after the revolutionaries had forced concessions from the state 
governments. They were afraid of proclaiming a republic, he charged, and 
had failed to secure the means to enforce even their more moderate 
decisions. He was right on both counts, but his polemics had little effect.

The problem for Marx was that his anti-Prussian campaign required the 
co-operation of left-wing liberals and democrats, while his championing 
of the class struggle meant turning against them. While Marx vacillated, 
the workers lost interest in the former campaign and the democrats were 
alienated by the latter. The Prussian government recovered its nerve, 
dissolved the Constituent Assembly in Berlin, and sent troops to Cologne 
to restore order. Marx was arrested and put on trial in February 1849. 
Basing his defence on the Napoleonic Code, which was operative in the 
Rhineland but not in the old Prussian provinces, Marx told the jurors 
that a modern social and political order required defending against the 
absolutism of the Prussian state. He was acquitted in triumph, but now 
abandoned the democrats in favour of a renewed commitment to a socialist 
and working-class revolution.

As Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia made clear his opposition to the 
constitution voted for by the National Assembly in Frankfurt, a fresh 
round of insurrections broke out all over Germany. The Prussian 
authorities closed down the New Rhenish News and expelled Marx, who had 
renounced his Prussian citizenship some time before. He travelled round 
the insurgent centres with Engels but, disappointed with their 
‘petty-bourgeois’ hesitancy, left for Paris and then London. As reaction 
and repression triumphed all over Europe, he still retained his 
confidence in the imminence of a democratic revolution on the Continent, 
which a revitalised Communist League would have to outbid. His 
intransigent March Address of 1850 was an implicit denunciation of the 
policies he had pursued during most of his time in Cologne.

He revived the New Rhenish News with the subtitle ‘Review of Political 
Economy’, publishing in it his brilliant essay ‘Class Struggles in 
France, 1848 to 1850’. This recounted the defeat of the revolutionary 
forces but predicted a fresh outbreak in which the proletariat would 
come to power. The periodical was not a success, and soon Marx and his 
family were living off credit crammed into a single room in Soho. When 
his two infant children, Heinrich and Franziska, died Marx had to borrow 
money to pay the undertaker. His marriage was plunged into crisis when 
the family servant, Lenchen Demuth, gave birth to a son. The boy, named 
Freddy Demuth, was put out to foster parents but kept in touch with the 
family and lived on until 1929. It was a not untypical Victorian family 
drama: the marriage was saved by Engels’s claim of paternity, a claim 
which he admitted on his deathbed was false and had been made at Marx’s 

The early 1850s also proved a low point for Marx politically, as the 
Communist League became mired in ideological quarrels and personal 
animosities, and its members in Cologne were arrested and subjected to a 
mass show trial. The star of the trial was the Prussian secret agent 
Wilhelm Stieber, who presented the court with a cache of documents 
stolen from the exiles in London (it is a pity that Sperber austerely 
refuses to use Stieber’s memoirs, which, while dubious in many ways, are 
also unquestionably entertaining). Marx’s name featured prominently in 
the trial, prompting him to furnish the defence with evidence that 
Stieber’s documents were forgeries. Naively forgetting what they had 
said in the Manifesto – that the law was just an instrument of class 
interests – Marx and Engels expected this to lead to an acquittal, but 
the jury found several of the defendants guilty, and Stieber went 

The exiles meanwhile accused each other of hypocrisy and embezzlement, 
taking each other to court and resorting to fisticuffs; two of them even 
fought a duel. Although this dire situation has often been blamed on 
Marx, he had previously been quite capable of working amicably with his 
associates, including the democrats of Cologne, and Sperber is more 
inclined to blame Engels, whose tactless and bullying personality he 
repeatedly criticises. The situation was made worse by scurrilous 
rumours spread by German and Austrian police spies, who swarmed around 
them like flies around a corpse. Marx was too trusting in at least one 
case, and unsuspectingly supplied a police spy with information, though 
he was never paid for it. When one of his rivals was unmasked as 
Stieber’s accomplice, Marx brought about the dissolution of the 
Communist League.


The revolution, Marx now realised, would be a long time coming. He 
developed the idea that it could occur only at a time when capitalism 
was in one of its crises. The final defeat of the revolution in France, 
marked by the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as president of the 
Republic (he would soon declare himself Emperor Napoleon III), was the 
subject of his most inspired pamphlet, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis 
Bonaparte, in which he denounced the simplistic idea that 1848 was a 
rerun of 1789. If history repeated itself, he said, it was the ‘first 
time as tragedy, the second as farce’: ‘The social revolution of the 
19th century cannot draw its poetry from the past but from the future.’ 
Political movements, he said, were related to social classes: socialists 
and communists to the workers, democrats to the petty bourgeoisie, 
republicans and monarchists to the capitalist class, conservatives to 
the large landowners. The analysis was to have a huge influence later on.

The pamphlet did not sell, however, and Marx’s fortunes failed to 
improve. His daughter Eleanor was born in January1855, but his much 
loved son Edgar died at the age of eight in April, leaving the family 
inconsolable. Marx withdrew from politics and devoted himself to forging 
a new career as a journalist, writing articles for the New York Tribune, 
commissioned by an American working on the paper who had met him in 
Cologne. He published 487 articles in all, about a quarter of them 
ghostwritten by Engels when Marx was ill. They amounted to more, in 
sheer volume, than the sum total of everything else Marx published in 
his lifetime, and while many biographers pass over them silently, 
Sperber does a good job of analysing their content, particularly Marx’s 
extensive commentaries on the Crimean War. The fiasco of the British 
conduct of the war convinced him that the prime minister, Lord 
Palmerston, was a paid agent of the Russians, whom Marx had long loathed 
as ‘the gendarme of Europe’. For him, Palmerston was a classic exemplar 
of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Whig aristocracy to whom the 
British bourgeoisie had cravenly abdicated political power – after his 
own experiences with police spies, Marx was prepared to believe almost 
anybody was acting as the secret agent of a malign foreign power.

The money he got for his journalism, together with subsidies from the 
prosperous Engels, enabled his family to rent a house in Kentish Town, 
in North London, to buy their own furniture for it, and to afford modest 
luxuries like picnics on Hampstead Heath. Sperber is very good on the 
family finances, which he shows were by no means as buoyant at this time 
as many biographers have claimed. Despite their travails, the Marxes 
remained devoted to each other. Jenny acted as Karl’s secretary and 
amanuensis, copied his articles into a fair hand, and took a strong 
interest in his political work. He adored his children – a visitor 
reported that he ‘played the wildest and most lively games with them’ – 
and discussed politics with them when they were old enough. ‘Distinctly 
bourgeois in his private life’, Marx also became, over time, 
increasingly English in his habits and attitudes. In a thoughtful 
discussion of his personal sense of identity, Sperber points out that 
according to 19th-century perceptions, Jewishness was a matter of 
culture and religion, not race, and by these lights Marx ‘did not seem 
very Jewish’ either to contemporaries or to himself.


At the end of the 1850s, Europe entered a period of conflict driven by 
the swelling tide of nationalism in Germany and Italy, which statesmen 
like Napoleon III, Cavour and Bismarck attempted to channel in 
directions that would preserve as much as possible of the social and 
political structures they represented. Marx condemned the French 
emperor’s support for the Italian nationalists, seeing him as a tool of 
Russian interests. This aligned him uncomfortably with conservatives 
trying to defend Austria’s rule in northern Italy, and it was from this 
stance that he polemicised against the anti-Austrian radical Karl Vogt, 
accusing him of being a French agent. Vogt responded in kind, accusing 
Marx of being an Austrian agent, and soon writs were flying about, none 
of them very successful. Marx’s Herr Vogt is usually ignored as a 
‘non-canonical’ work, but Sperber shows that it was more influential and 
more widely read at the time than the subsequently canonical Eighteenth 
Brumaire. The charge that Vogt was a client of French imperialist 
designs on the Rhineland was vindicated when Napoleon III fell in 1870: 
documents were discovered showing that Vogt had been paid fifty thousand 
francs by the French government in 1859.

At the time, Vogt won the argument, but the dispute brought Marx new 
political allies, notably the revolutionary socialist Ferdinand 
Lassalle, a gifted but dandyish middle-class radical of Jewish origin 
who began subsidising him from his private resources and finding 
publishers for his work. But Lassalle had his own ideas and was not 
prepared to defer to Marx. Like most leftists, Marx and Engels did not 
entirely trust the flamboyant Lassalle, and they peppered their letters 
about him with anti-semitic invective, painting him as a vulgar, pushy 
parvenu, ‘Isidor Berlin Blue Dye’, ‘the little Yid Braun’. Lassalle 
invited Marx to Berlin, where he threw dinner parties for him and took 
him to the opera, cheekily finding him a seat next to the royal box. 
Marx visited old friends in Cologne and family in Trier, where his 
mother graciously cancelled his debts to her; she died two years later. 
Back in London, he was visited by Lassalle, who offended the 
impoverished Marxes by ostentatiously spending his money on hansom cabs 
and fine cigars, and eating all by himself a small roast Lenchen had 
intended for the whole family.

By this time, Marx was no longer writing for the Tribune and was again 
forced to live off borrowed money, mostly provided by Engels. His 
begging letters put a strain on their relationship, eased only when the 
inheritance from his mother’s estate came through, together with an 
unexpected legacy from his friend Wilhelm Wolff. The family moved to a 
larger house in North London, but Marx fell ill with what medical 
experts now think was an auto-immune disorder that affected his skin, 
causing large carbuncles. Nothing could be done, and Marx suffered from 
the painful and debilitating condition for the rest of his life. In 1869 
he finally achieved financial security when Engels assigned him an 
annual allowance out of an inheritance he received from his father.

None of this stopped Marx from engaging with the newly founded General 
German Workers’ Association, which the charismatic Lassalle established 
in the months preceding his death at the hands of a romantic rival in a 
duel in August 1864. Marx also attracted attention in London when his 
backing for the Polish nationalist revolt against Russian rule in 1863 
led to a public meeting at which the organisers founded a new 
International Working Men’s Association. With a seat on the committee, 
Marx was taking an active role in politics for the first time in years. 
The association wasn’t a tightly-knit conspiratorial group as the League 
of the Just had been, but a loose confederation of already existing 
trade unions, mutual benefit societies and educational associations; far 
from transcending nationalism, it supported it in Poland and elsewhere.

Marx exerted his influence on the International largely from behind the 
scenes, advocating such reformist aims as a shorter working day and 
labour actions such as persuading workers of one nationality not to 
break strikes in another country, in order to expand the movement and 
create a favourable basis for revolution when the moment came. His 
assumption that there was no contradiction between revolution and reform 
would be proved wrong in the years after his death. Sidestepping the 
pro-Prussian Lassalleans, Marx forged links with the anti-Prussian 
labour movement founded in Leipzig by his friend Wilhelm Liebknecht. The 
political situation was thrown into turmoil, however, by Bismarck’s 
dramatic solution of the problem of German unity, engineering a war 
against Austria – which was defeated by the Prussian army in a matter of 
weeks – and using the occasion to create a new North German 
Confederation, with a parliament elected by universal male suffrage. 
Most German liberals were won over by this bold stroke. Liebknecht 
decided to use the new franchise to secure election to parliament, and 
in 1869 founded the Social Democratic Labour Party, which quickly 
affiliated with the International, tying it to parliamentarism.


The International faced major problems. The most serious was the growing 
influence of Bakunin, whose followers took over the International in 
Spain and Italy. Bakunin’s championing of secret societies was anathema 
to Marx’s principle of loose labour confederations. The revolution 
seemed to be receding further into the future, as Marx placed his 
(unrealistic) hopes in an uprising of the Irish peasantry – not the most 
socialist of people – against British rule. In 1870, however, Bismarck 
engineered another war, this time against France; Napoleon III had to be 
neutralised if the unification of the southern German states with the 
North German Confederation was to be completed. Bismarck succeeded in 
portraying the bombastic emperor as the aggressor, and at first Marx 
applauded him. ‘The French need a thrashing,’ he wrote.

The Prussians’ crushing victory and the replacement of the Second French 
Empire by the Third Republic caused Marx to change his mind and support 
the French. As so often, he suspected the Prussians of being tools of 
the tsar. When a motley crew of radicals took over Paris in a 
revolutionary commune, Marx hesitated, but his reluctance to support the 
Communards didn’t prevent the republican government at Versailles from 
claiming they were acting under his orders. He was accused of being the 
‘head of a vast conspiracy’ operating through the International. Elated 
at his new notoriety, Marx fired off The Civil War in France, attacking 
Adolphe Thiers, ‘that monstrous gnome’, and hailing the Commune as a new 
form of state created by working men, ‘the glorious harbinger of a new 
society’. Marx knew the Communards weren’t socialists, but he seized the 
opportunity to paint a vivid picture of what a future communist 
revolution would look like.

The pamphlet, praised by socialists across Europe and featured in 
newspapers and magazines everywhere, made Marx famous. Yet the Commune’s 
violent suppression by government troops in 1871 opened up fresh 
divisions in the International, above all between the followers of Marx 
and those of Bakunin. The British trade unionists were essentially 
liberals who favoured forming a political party. Police repression, 
above all in France, hamstrung many of the affiliated organisations. As 
the arguments began to fly, Marx outmanoeuvred the Bakuninites both on 
the General Council and at the 1872 Hague Congress. Armed with a clear 
majority, he dropped a bombshell: the seat of the council would move to 
New York. The delegates duly obeyed. Behind this startling move were 
Marx’s belief that the new era of political reaction and police 
repression would make the International’s work impossible; his fear that 
his failing health might again open the way to the Bakuninites; and his 
desire to clear the decks so he could make progress with his own 
economic writings.


Up to this point, Sperber tells the story of Marx largely as it was 
known in his own lifetime. The two chapters about his mature theories 
are put into a section headed ‘Legacy’. Marx imbibed positivist, 
scientific influences from, among other sources, On the Origin of 
Species, which he read in 1860. But he retained his Hegelianism to the 
end, downplayed though it was by the far more positivistic Engels after 
his death. Contrary to popular myth, Marx did not offer to dedicate 
Capital to Darwin; in fact he criticised Darwin for importing into the 
natural world the structures and habits of England’s capitalist society. 
In the preface to his short work On the Critique of Political Economy, 
Marx outlined his theory of stages of social development, sketched the 
concepts of base and superstructure, and drew distinctions between the 
Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production. All 
of this was to give his followers endless scope for argument and 
exegesis over the next hundred years.

Sperber sees Marx’s economic ideas as rooted in a dialogue with his 
predecessors from Adam Smith to Ricardo, with little of relevance to say 
about the economy or economic theory of the late 19th or 20th centuries. 
Capital and its associated manuscripts described the initial phases of 
industrialism in England, when living and working conditions really were 
deteriorating. But Marx was already aware that he was dealing with ‘old 
atrocities from the childhood period of English factories’. The labour 
aristocracy of British trade unionists whom he met in the International 
didn’t feature in his analyses. His belief that the rate of capitalist 
profit was falling was based on the unstable and adventurous early phase 
of industrial entrepreneurship; it no longer held good in the 1860s. 
‘Marx’s vision of capitalism’s future’, as Sperber puts it, was a 
‘transcribed version of capitalism’s past’.

Marx’s later economic writings also complicated the Communist 
Manifesto’s bipolar account of class relations between bourgeoisie and 
proletariat by devoting considerable attention to landowners and 
agriculture, and by grappling with Malthus’s dire prediction that 
population growth would outpace the land’s ability to sustain it. At a 
time when agriculture in Europe was rapidly decreasing in size and 
importance, this too belonged to a ‘backward-looking economics’. Marx 
had little good to say about the service sector, whose expansion would 
be a central feature of 20th-century economies (‘From the whore to the 
pope, there is a mass of such scum,’ was one of his more choice 
remarks). When his economic theories finally aroused public discussion, 
thanks to Engels’s posthumous publication of his manuscripts, ‘most 
economists were living in a completely different intellectual world from 
the one Marx had inhabited.’ The Austrian economist Eugen von 
Böhm-Bawerk briskly dismissed his labour theory of value by pointing out 
that prices and values are determined by market forces and consumer 
preferences, not by labour time.

In his last years, Marx continued to be obsessed by the Russian threat. 
He met Russian revolutionaries and began to think that Russian society 
might bypass some of the stages of development he had described in the 
Manifesto, though he qualified this view more heavily than Lenin and 
Trotsky later cared to admit. Marx reacted furiously to the programme 
agreed to by Liebknecht and the Lassalleans in 1875 at Gotha, when they 
united the two wings of the German labour movement. He condemned its 
advocacy of state-run co-operatives and its opposition to trade unions 
in his last major polemic, the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. After 
Bismarck banned Liebknecht’s party in 1878, the editors of its illegal 
daily newspaper, based in Zurich, championed a policy of reforming 
capitalism rather than overthrowing it, and collaborating with the 
liberal bourgeoisie rather than opposing it. Marx denounced this view 
too. It would later become known as ‘revisionism’, circumvented by the 
party leaders through a continuing insistence on the need for class 
struggle and revolution in theory, while working with existing 
institutions in practice.

Marx died on 14 March 1883, 15 months after the death of his wife, 
Jenny. He had just returned from a journey that took him to Algiers, 
southern France and the Isle of Wight in search of a milder climate that 
would mitigate the late-onset symptoms of the tuberculosis from which 
his father suffered. Both in his funeral eulogy and his subsequent 
writings, most notably the Anti-Dühring, Engels created a positivistic 
image of Marx as a scientific socialist that was accepted by the mass 
labour movements which emerged in the 1890s. At the same time, 
demagogues speaking for the new racial anti-semitism of the later 19th 
century furiously denounced Marx’s ideas, or more accurately, those of 
his self-proclaimed followers, as an expression of the Jewish heritage 
he himself had ignored.

It was Marx’s ‘passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and 
intransigent nature’ that had ‘the deepest and most resonant appeal, and 
has generated the sharpest rebukes and opposition, down to the present 
day’, Sperber writes, while downplaying the legacy of his ideas. He 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.

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