Why you should read: Karl Marx, A Nineteenth-Century Life

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Karl Marx has been many things to many people. During the 20th century, amid the clamour of the Cold War era, perceptions about Marx split into two rival camps: supporters hailed him as a far-sighted prophet propelling state and society ever onwards toward a radiant future: opponents raged against him for the mayhem unleashed during Stalin and Mao’s revolutionary political movements. Both positions over-privilege the salience of Karl Marx’s activist ideology. Few today pretend the campaigns of Marxist regimes were reminiscent of anything in Marx’s own writings.

All too often, Marx himself was a captive, first, to Friedrich Engels’s biased representation of Marx’s ideas and political positions following his death and, later, to Marxist theorists who riveted his system of thought to the experience of state socialism in the 20th century. Such a tendentious approach to history has inhibited a proper understanding of Marx’s public life. Jonathan Sperber’s superb biography sets out to unshackle Marx from Marxism and embed his life and work within a broader historical context of 19th century social, political and economic ideas and movements. As Sperber argues, “the view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course and it is time for a new understanding of him as a figure of a past historical epoch” (xiii).

Sperber contends that Marx should be left where he belongs, in his native Rhineland of 19th century Germany. As an ardent Rhinelander, Marx nursed a lifetime hatred of the Prussian crown because the Congress of Vienna had given Catholic Rhineland to Protestant and absolutist Prussia after the Napoleonic wars. Prussian authorities then closed the successful Rhineland News he edited and forced him into exile, first in Paris, then Brussels and finally London, where he struggled to make ends meet. From this point, Marx and his large family led a gruelling, poverty-stricken life mostly spent dodging debt collectors and Prussian spies. Marx’s recurring personal upheavals were as much to the fore as his ongoing revolutionary upheavals. These experiences radicalised Marx.

In England, Marx’s economic ideas and political practices were shaped by the industrial revolution unfolding around him, while his intellectual agenda was set by the classical economists, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, James Mill and Jean Baptiste Say. Like them, Marx took a deeply pessimistic view of the inner workings of the capitalist system based on the classical notion of the “stationary state”. Yet, he reached conclusions widely at odds with classical thought. Take, for example, the idea of free trade. Classical economists subscribed to the fundamental idea that the removal of impediments to and restrictions on free trade would stimulate economic activity, employment and output. They therefore supported policy measures, such as the 1846 Corn Law, aimed at removing barriers to trade, because it promoted economic growth and national wealth. Even though Marx believed a free trade system impoverished the working class, he defended the doctrine of free trade on the grounds that the system of “commercial liberty hastens the social revolution” (201). For Marx, the struggle against the capitalist order was a necessary step ultimately resolved by means of a social revolution that would usher in a communist regime.

So what is the point of reading about Marx and the 19th century world he inhabited?

Today, Marx’s political and economic ideas retain relevance far beyond the dwindling number who call themselves Marxists. Every now and then, Marx’s world seems to burst into our own with a shocking clarity and familiarity. The 1848 nationalist and democratic revolutions in Europe seemed familiar in 1989 as revolutions swept away the Soviet system; or during the Arab Spring of 2011 as authoritarian rulers were ousted from power across North Africa and the Middle East. Such moments of familiarity should not be allowed to mask the fact that Marx’s times were very different from our own. Recognising the distinctive features of each epoch allows the historical and present situation to appear in its own clear light free from prejudice or preconceptions.

Marx’s most influential work was the Communist Manifesto (1848), a pamphlet that outlines the defects and contradictions that are inherent to capitalist societies. Fellow travellers inhaled its succinct message that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Its opening lines – “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism” – and closing sentences – “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite” – remain evocative. Yet communism in the USSR and Maoist China left millions brutalized, impoverished and murdered in its wake. Few mourn its demise and fewer champion its cause. What happened in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Mao’s China bears little, if any, resemblance to what Marx espoused. He would have been utterly appalled at the perversion of his thought by the tyrants of the 20th century.

For me, the greatest insight of Marx was his understanding of the inherent fragility of the capitalist system and its capacity to wreak havoc on a regular basis. Yet, for all its flaws and excesses, capitalism as an organising principle remains well and truly alive today, even gaining adherents in former communist strongholds—the irony of global capitalism resting today on the patronage of the Chinese Communist Party is wasted on many. So was Marx wrong in proclaiming the end of capitalism? He certainly anticipated the power of multinational corporations in an increasingly globalised world and understood the destructive nature of recurring business cycles. But his prediction that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions turned out to be mistaken. Ever rising income inequality and concentration of wealth may well act as a brake on globalisation and the international mobility of capital, but they are unlikely to operate as mechanisms for its removal. As such, the system of western democratic capitalism may succumb periodically to stagnation and decline, but seems likely to endure.

Jonathan Sperber’s study is characterised by deep insight, great thoroughness and even greater originality. It succeeds in demystifying Marx and setting him down as a multi-faceted person, not a prophet, who was shaped by the past but “who had looked deeply into the future” (xii). This is a notable achievement.

Jonathan Sperber. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liveright Publishing. 2013

Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.

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