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Is Marx still relevant?

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.

Born in 1818, Marx was the son of a Jewish lawyer who converted to Protestantism in order to continue to practice law in his anti-Semitic Prussian homeland. Marx’s father was a courageous campaigner against bigotry, and would have been pained to learn that his son later declared that “the Israelite faith is repulsive to me.” Marx’s mother was a Dutchwoman with psychic powers who predicted the time of her own death to the hour. Clairvoyance seems to have run in the family: Marx himself sometimes writes as though the future were predetermined, though he claimed no paranormal powers in order to do so.

As a student of law in his father’s footsteps, first in Bonn and then in Berlin, the bohemian young Marx was something of a brawler and boozer. He was, however, just about socially respectable enough to marry Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a distinguished, aristocratic Prussian family. The pairing looked incongruous to some of their friends, with Marx, a hairy, swarthy commoner of suspiciously Semitic provenance, playing the Beast to Jenny’s Teutonic Beauty. He was always rather foolishly proud of his wife’s high-class origins, though Sperber suspects that the Westphalens’ nobility was somewhat specious. That Jenny was four years older was another scandalous feature of the marriage. As Sperber comments, the union “violated accepted norms of masculinity and of relations between the sexes.” Being younger than your wife was thought at the time to be shamefully emasculating, rather like being less educated than your valet. Judging from an enigmatic letter sent by Jenny to Karl, the couple also seem to have engaged in premarital sex, which was common enough then among the rural and urban masses but “virtually inconceivable behavior for the very proper daughter of a high Prussian state official from a straitlaced provincial city.” Nonconformism clearly began at home, as it did with Marx’s later collaborator Friedrich Engels, who took a working-class woman as his mistress. (The fact that she was of Irish origin suggests a marvelously convenient combination of class sympathies and anticolonialist ones.)

The young Marx began his career by securing a post at a radical newspaper in Germany. Journalism was to provide him for the rest of his days with a suitable alternative to academia on the one hand and street-fighting militancy on the other. Still, it took some time for this Young Hegelian to become a fully paid-up Marxist. Five years before he wrote the Communist Manifesto, he could be found “advocating the use of the army to suppress a communist workers’ uprising.” Communist ideas, he wrote, were genuinely dangerous and could “defeat our intelligence, conquer our sentiments.” It is as though Darwin had voiced his belief in Adam and Eve on the very brink of publishing On the Origin of Species. Having become a Marxist, Marx then famously denied that he was one.

For most of Marx’s life, much of his and Jenny’s time was devoted to keeping irate creditors from the door. He once commented that nobody had ever written so much about money while possessing so little. His poverty, to be sure, was of a suitably genteel kind. As Sperber notes, “except on one disastrous occasion, he never proposed that Jenny keep house for him.” Besides, there was always a slatternly servant or two to be hired. The couple could even rustle up the odd governess for their growing brood. But Marx’s knowledge of material scarcity was a good deal more than theoretical. It was a matter of when the butcher was to be paid, not just of the contradictions of capitalism. Three of his children died at birth or in infancy, in tiny apartments and slum neighborhoods. When his daughter Franziska joined this grim company, we are told he “had to spend the day of [her] funeral running around, seeking money to pay the undertaker.” It was capitalism that finally rode to his financial rescue in the shape of Engels, philandering son of a Manchester factory owner, who in the days before registered letters existed would cut banknotes in half and send them to his needy colleague in separate envelopes. During his time in England, Marx was also kept afloat by his articles for the New York Tribune, then the leading newspaper in the United States.

The politically turbulent Europe of the 1840s meant that this tireless agitator was constantly on the hoof. Expelled from Paris as a political dissident, Marx washed up for a while in Brussels, where he knocked around with other political refugees and formed links with a secret society of artisans. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Belgian authorities and shifted his activities to Cologne. During 1848, the year of European revolutions, his political activism deepened dramatically. Sperber remarks that Marx was, “for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany.” Revolutionaries are often derided for their false prophecies of mass insurgency, but no sooner had Marx forecast such an upheaval in the Communist Manifesto than it broke out in one European nation after another. After being expelled from his native Germany, he considered sailing to America but was unable to raise the boat fare. Instead, he went to England in 1849, having swapped one country for another for the last time. The most ferocious critic of industrial capitalism was now in the place where it had all started.

In a London thronging with quarrelsome political refugees, his hopes for revolution dashed by the suppression of the Continental uprisings, the penniless Marx found his personal and political isolation complete. For the rest of his life he was to remain stateless, having renounced his Prussian citizenship but having also been refused status as a British subject. If the proletariat, as he declared, knew no homeland, neither did its champion. When Marx announced his support for the Paris Commune of 1871, the British government made it clear to this interloper that he was unwelcome on their soil. Nonetheless, Marx’s reputation grew to the point where he became something of a legend in his own lifetime. Even Queen Victoria dispatched a personal envoy to meet with him, a dignitary with a splendid name not even Dickens could have invented: Sir Mountstewart Elphinstone Grant Duff. Hearing him announced, Marx may well have assumed he was being visited by a committee.

It was in London that Marx produced the work (Capital) that made him world famous. He did so, however, with a certain reluctance. Working on “this economic crap,” as he once contemptuously called it, was an obligation he felt he owed to those on the sticky end of the capitalist system, but it also kept him from writing his big book on Balzac. In the end, Marx was neither an economist nor a political strategist but a formidably erudite thinker in the great European humanistic tradition. His heart was with Goethe and Heine, not with the ratio of fixed to variable capital. But the high moral conscience of that tradition forced him to suspend his humane pursuits in the name of humanity. Dogged throughout his life by hemorrhoids, rotten teeth, liver complaints, and excruciatingly painful carbuncles, he died in 1883, probably of a mixture of tuberculosis, overwork, and grief at the death of his daughter Jenny, who had failed to reach the age of forty.

The personality that emerges from Sperber’s book — jovial, prudish, warmhearted, sarcastic, child-loving, autocratic, vicious in political dispute — is familiar enough from previous studies. Sperber writes of Marx’s “intellectual arrogance and tyrannical leanings,” as well as of his tendency to “factional pettiness.” Where the book excels is in its scrupulously detailed account of its subject from cradle to grave, as well as in its judicious refusal either to demonize or to idealize him. There are a few minor slips. The landowners who ruled Ireland in Marx’s day were not English but Anglo-Irish. The British habit of calling police officers “bobbies” died out about half a century ago. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was more of a Marxist than Sperber imagines. The sentence “Trier remains today, even as it was in Marx’s youth, a very old city” does not display the author at his most intellectually acute. And Sperber’s prose can occasionally be flat-footed, in contrast with the sprightly, witty style of the Englishman Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx: A Life, which appeared a dozen years ago.

Sperber’s account of Marx acknowledges the various influences on his work, from Hegel and Feuerbach to the radical democratic thought of his own day. Yet it gives us little sense of how he brought about a revolution in ideas as well as calling for one in reality. What, then, is truly innovative about Marx? Apart from some rather esoteric reflections on the forces and relations of production, he made at least two strikingly original contributions to human thought. The first was to break with much previous philosophy by viewing individuals primarily as practical agents. That this sounds unremarkable enough is a sign of just how obtuse philosophers can be. What would the human narrative look like, he asked himself, if we were to start from men and women not as contemplative spirits but as self-determining individuals who create a history in common, and who need to do so because of the nature of their bodies? Is there a way of getting from the body’s needs and capabilities to politics, ethics, and culture? It is not certain that there is; but to imagine so is a vastly exciting enterprise, one that Marx launched at a disgracefully precocious age in his Paris manuscripts and then more or less abandoned under pressure of his economic inquiries.

Marx’s other original move was to identify capitalism as a specific historical system, powered by its own peculiar laws. It was no longer simply the invisible color of everyday life, too close to the eyeball to be objectified. What he did in this respect was exactly what crises of capitalism — like that of 2008 — tend to do. Such crises prove embarrassing to those who run the show not only because they involve some people rummaging in trash cans while others fill up their Cadillacs. They are embarrassing also because by throwing the workings of the system into stark relief, they disclose the disagreeable truth that the system represents one particular way of doing things among a range of other possibilities. If the past did things differently, so might the future. It is far simpler to pretend that the Inca traded in futures just like we do, or that the ancient Assyrians lost sleep over the alarming size of their deficit.

Marx may have shown the limits of the capitalist system, but he was by no means a fanatical opponent of it. In Marx’s admiring view, the middle classes had in the brief span of a few centuries transformed the face of the earth and swept the anciens régimes into the ash can of history. (It is true that one or two vestiges of that past were carelessly let slip — Prince Charles, for example — but otherwise the job was remarkably thorough.) These sober, prudent creatures had toppled autocracies, freed slaves, dismantled empires, invented human rights, launched feminism and liberal democracy, produced a resplendent artistic culture, and laid the foundations for global community. It was true that they had had their catastrophes: famines, world wars, and the like. Indeed, they had proved not only the most enthrallingly emancipatory force in history but also the most savagely exploitative. Their precious achievements were everywhere steeped in blood. These two aspects of the middle-class capitalist narrative were in Marx’s view as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper.

Seizing the wealth-producing machine of the middle classes, Marx believed, was the only way to lay the basis for socialism. You could go socialist only if you were reasonably well-off. Or if you weren’t, then some well-disposed neighbors needed to be. Otherwise you would end up with what Marx scathingly called “generalized scarcity,” the historical name for which turned out to be “Stalinism.” Building up material production from a dismally low level is an arduous task; and if one has eliminated the motive that made such a project so astonishingly successful under capitalism, namely greed, it is likely that a brutally authoritarian state will need to step in and force people to undertake at rifle point what they would be reluctant to accomplish voluntarily. Marx, whose view of “backward” nations could be at best unenlightened and at worst racist, never imagined for a moment that one could build socialism in an isolated, besieged, destitute society. Socialism would quickly give way to state tyranny. There are those who speak of democratic socialism, but this in Marx’s eyes was a tautology. For Marx, nondemocratic socialism was a contradiction in terms, rather like the phrase “business ethics.” Socialism was a matter of taking democracy seriously in everyday life, rather than confining it to a purely formal, governmental set of procedures. Human beings might misuse their freedom in this respect, but they were not fully human without it.

Rather curiously, Sperber lavishes a great deal of attention on the work of a man whose ideas he considers irrelevant today. “The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world,” he writes, “has run its course.” As a figure, Marx is of historical interest only, and this book has come more to bury than to praise him. It is true that Marx’s ideas are no longer exactly shaping the world, but it is also true that they do a lot to explain how capitalism is not in charge of events. The younger generation today may not be made up of card-carrying Marxists, but a sizable chunk of them are increasingly and vociferously anticapitalist. This is not to say that they could give you a cogent account of the Asiatic mode of production. It is rather to say that they are revolted by the prospect of the state using the hard-earned wealth of its citizens to bail out a bunch of financial gangsters, and properly unconvinced that this is the only conceivable way of running a modern economy. In Britain each summer, thousands of young Marxists, some of them workers sacrificing their vacations, gather to discuss the possibility of a less brutal and obscenely inequitable way of conducting our civil affairs.

If Sperber consigns Marx to the museum, it is largely because he thinks the capitalism of Marx’s day is too remote from the system we know today to remain relevant. Marx’s ideas, he informs us, “belonged primarily to the nineteenth century.” But so did Darwin’s. The United States has changed immeasurably since the days of Paine and Jefferson; does Sperber regard them too as of purely academic interest? Jesus’ ideas descend to us from an even earlier epoch, but few Americans would regard this as good reason to reject them out of hand. Capitalism has indeed undergone some momentous changes since Marx’s day. It is more global than it was, more capable of colonizing the inner recesses of the human spirit, even more blatant in its inequalities, and every bit as crisis-racked. The hunt for profit still governs most of the world, giving rise to imperial war, child labor, and stinking slums. The proletariat may no longer be massed in the factories of the West, but its presence is as palpable as ever in the sweatshops of the South and East. We are, in short, as far from lying around in loose crimson garments as we ever were.

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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