Reviews — From the April 2013 issue

The Revolutionary

Is Marx still relevant?

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Discussed in this essay:

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber. Liveright. 672 pages. $35. W.W. Norton.

Not many of Karl Marx’s ideas were original. The concept of communism was known to the ancient world, while the notion of revolution is probably as old as politics itself. There are those who believe that Marx invented social class, but he himself was not of this party. Perhaps it was the idea of class struggle that he should have patented; but this, too, had long been familiar stuff to harassed mine owners and revolting peasants, if not always to political theorists. His vision of history as a succession of modes of production was a commonplace of the Enlightenment, and much of his thought was anticipated by Hegel.

What of Marx’s conviction that the decisive factor in social life is economic? Even if he was the first to come up with this view, which is doubtful, it is by no means particular to him. There are plenty of Americans who use the phrase “the bottom line” to mean the all-determining question of dollars, which suggests either that most U.S. citizens are natural-born Marxists or that Marx’s own view of the question is widely held. Cicero declared that the state existed to protect private property, an orthodox piece of Marxist doctrine. Sigmund Freud, no friend of Marxism, held that without the necessity to labor, men and women would just spend their days in various interesting postures of erotic gratification. It was the need for material survival that spurred them to forsake the pleasure principle for their banks and cotton mills.

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is the author of Why Marx Was Right (Yale University Press). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Man of the World,” appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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  • Ocooch

    Excellent review, if only for its cogent and oh-so relevant summary.

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