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.

Marx, for whom socialism was about not labor but leisure, thought it possible to reorganize our resources so that men and women could be freed as far as possible from the more degrading forms of toil. (Those who have moral objections to having to work should join their local communist parties immediately.) For his fellow socialist Oscar Wilde, they would then be at leisure to lounge around in loose crimson garments, sipping absinthe and reciting Homer to one another. Marx, in a venerable Judaic tradition, was a strenuously ethical thinker, one who grasped the point that morality is mostly a question of learning how to enjoy yourself; men and women, he thought, were at their best when they were able to realize their unique powers and capacities as delightful ends in and of themselves. If everyone were free to do this, however, they would have to find some way of doing it reciprocally. They would need to fulfill themselves in and through the fulfillment of others. Communism for Marx was a kind of political love.

Marx would not have been particularly dismayed, one suspects, to hear that most of his ideas were unoriginal. This is not because he thought innovation was overrated, but because he thought ideas were. Most prominent Marxists these days are academics, whereas Marx himself never held a university post (though he did have a doctorate in ancient philosophy).[*] One of Lenin’s favorite literary quotations was from Goethe’s Faust — “Gray is theory, my friend, but ever green is the tree of life” — and one can easily imagine Marx posting the same words above his desk. He was a Romantic humanist with a passion for the sensuously specific; and though he saw the need for abstract concepts, he regarded them as brittle and anemic compared with the rich complexity of the concrete. This was one reason he treated the concept of equality with a certain caution. Glaring social inequalities must of course be abolished, but not in a way that rode roughshod over human differences.

[*] He was rather more qualified for an academic career than W. B. Yeats, who was once turned down for a position at Trinity College, Dublin, because he misspelled the word “professor” on his application.

Marx spent much of his life as a radical journalist and political activist, and the purpose of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography is to return him to his historical context. In this sense, then, the book is a materialist study of a materialist thinker. Sperber is no dewy-eyed disciple of the master, but treats him rather as Marx treated human beings, seeing him first and foremost as a practical agent. There is, however, a certain paradox here. We are interested in Marx’s life because of his work, but Sperber’s book pushes his work into the background in order to make room for the life. This is true of most intellectual biographies, which are in this sense a curiously self-defeating genre. Like most historians, Sperber is not at his most impressive in the realm of ideas, though he makes a brave, slightly perfunctory stab at summarizing some of Marx’s thought as he goes along.

It is true that we can sometimes make discoveries about a writer’s life that radically transform our sense of his or her work. If a biography of Thomas Hardy were to reveal that he never clapped eyes on a cow, or a life history of Cardinal Newman were to inform us that he ran a highly successful brothel in his Oxford college, we might well approach their writings with fresh eyes. In general, however, biographies of writers and thinkers do nothing quite so world-shaking. Instead, they tell us what their subject had for breakfast or wore to a fancy-dress ball — facts that are of interest because of what he or she wrote or thought but have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Marx is a rather different case, since he believed in a unity of theory and practice. Even so, there is no simple relationship between Marx’s ideas and his material existence.

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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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