Man out of Time

Man Out Of Time: Karl Marx has long been buried beneath the "isms"
that have obscured his humanity. No longer. By Charles Reineke.

Marx Portrait

LLate in the summer of 1849, two floors above what is today a trendy restaurant in one of London’s hippest neighborhoods, Karl Marx, 32-year-old radical journalist and revolutionary, opened the door to an apartment that must surely have given him pause.

As a founder of the Communist League and author of its Manifesto, Marx had positioned himself as one of Europe’s most prominent subversives. But just months earlier he had seen the collapse of what he hoped would be a working-class insurgency in his native Prussia, a disaster that led to his expulsion from the country and to the failure of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the radical newspaper Marx both edited and bankrolled.

He sought to regroup in Paris, where his arrival coincided with an outbreak of cholera. The French authorities found the German insurrectionist and the infectious bacteria equally unwelcome. He was given the option of leaving the country or relocating to a malarial backwater in Brittany. Marx chose the former, leaving his pregnant wife and three small children in Paris while he sailed for England’s capital, then the world’s largest city, a teeming metropolis where laissez faire ruled both capital markets and immigration policy.

Like the thousands of less-notorious exiles and immigrants then flooding the city, Marx stepped off the boat with little cash and an uncertain future. As he dropped his valise on the uneven plank flooring of his first “permanent” London lodging, an overpriced, two-room tenement on Dean Street in Soho, even the ever-ambitious Marx would have had trouble envisioning his future: that he was destined to become an industrial-age icon, a towering if often misunderstood philosopher-economist whose ideas — some of which he would develop in these very rooms — would be both celebrated and vilified for the next 150 years.

Nor, for that matter, is it likely he could have foreseen how the forces of global capitalism would one day endow his wretched rental with a makeover that would include a gleaming ground-floor bistro, the kind of place where privileged patrons happily consume elegantly assembled snacks of smoked haddock, black pudding and poached egg, washing them down with $538 bottles of Pichon Longueville.

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That Marx did not foretell capitalism’s peculiar course is hardly an insult, argues MU’s Jonathan Sperber in his new book, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. While admirers have sometimes cast Marx as a prophet, the man himself had no interest in soothsaying. He instead spent his adult life working tirelessly to expose early capitalism’s shortcomings — and, he hoped, hasten its demise — by expanding on the thinking of the “classical” economists who helped define and shape the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

Marx was indeed a radical and activist, Sperber argues. But he shared little in common with the strategies and tactics adopted by the later generations of agitators who adopted his name. “Marx was a proponent of a violent, perhaps even terrorist revolution, but one that had many more similarities with the actions of Robespierre than those of Stalin,” writes Sperber. “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, one increasingly distant from our own.”

There has never been a shortage of books about Marx. But by returning Marx to his “Victorian confines,” Sperber stakes new ground. It’s an approach that has struck a chord with critics, particularly those residing in the land of Marx’s exile.

British parliamentarian and author Tristram Hunt, writing in London’s Guardian newspaper, called the book a “profoundly important biography.” Ben Wilson, the prominent young historian who reviewed the book for the Daily Telegraph, wrote, “Sperber does a brilliant job at recreating these poisonous conflicts and inflated egos, taking us into the murky world of émigré revolutionaries.”

Perhaps most significant was English newspaper columnist and editor Jonathan Freedland’s review in the Sunday New York Times.

“Sperber forces us to look anew at a man whose influence lives on,” Freedland wrote. “And he also offers a useful template for how we might approach other great figures, especially the great thinkers, of history — demystifying the words and deeds of those who too often are lazily deemed sacred. For all the books that have been written about America’s founding fathers, for example, we still await the historian who will do for them what Jonathan Sperber has done for Karl Marx.”

The Times review, Sperber says, was a big boost, putting the book on the radar screens of thousands of general-interest readers — precisely the audience he was looking for.

Sperber even made an appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, one of late-night television’s most coveted invitations. “Jon Stewart is a very gifted host,” he says. “He’s really good at putting his guest at ease and guiding a conversation.”

Stewart is also backed up by a great staff, Sperber adds, particularly the producer he worked with. “I spent quite a while with her on the phone before the day I was to appear. We laid out what I was going to talk about; she gave me instructions about how to talk, how to walk, what I’d be looking at, how to sit… What I can say about the experience is that, on camera, spontaneity requires a lot of very careful preparation.”

For Sperber, such exposure is not just about driving sales. History matters because it shows that our contemporary lives are part of a continuously evolving human narrative, one in which past, present and future are each inextricably bound. Providing historical context for figures like Marx — the details of how their own epoch shaped them — helps us to better comprehend our place in our own time, and how decisions we make today will influence, for better or worse, the lives of those whose time is yet to come.

“One of the things we do as historians is help deepen our understanding of the present by contrasting it with past eras — eras where there are similarities but also where there are very sharp differences,” Sperber says. “It’s the idea of understanding the past in its own right.”

“Unlike other disciplines, we historians don’t have a specialized jargon. We write — most of us write — in ordinary, accessible language. And we’d all love to have a larger audience for our work.”

That being said, is he surprised that he pulled this off with a book about Marx? “Yes,” Sperber says. He pauses, then laughs. “In a word, yes. Enormously surprised that this dead white guy with a big beard would spark such an interest. And I must say it’s worldwide, global.”

Verlag C.H. Beck in Munich, he says, published a German-language edition of the biography earlier this year. Sperber has also signed contracts for translated editions to appear in Spain, Brazil, Slovenia, China, Taiwan, Japan and Turkey. It’s been a heady turn for an historian who began his career pursuing “what seemed to a lot of people to be very obscure topics.”

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Sperber was born inNew York City, the paternal grandchild of immigrants from what he describes as the “further reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Like a lot of people there, he says, “the language they spoke was German, which was sort of the imperial lingua franca.”

Sperber credits their influence with sparking his interest in Europe and its history. “One of the things about growing up in New York — if your grandparents were immigrants as mine were — is that Europe seemed a little closer to people’s lives.”

After high school Sperber moved upstate to continue his education, graduating from Cornell University in 1973. Next came graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree and, in 1980, a doctorate in history.

At Chicago, Sperber studied with Leonard Krieger, a figure renowned in his day for contributions to the development of historicist theory. “He died a little over 20 years ago,” Sperber says. “I don’t think people remember him very well anymore. He was an adherent of historicism, the belief that … how to put this simply … there are different historical eras and they each have their own inherent social, economic and intellectual logic.”

“My interests were actually a little different than Krieger’s. I was interested not so much in intellectual history as social, political and religious history. Really about people’s everyday lives, about political struggles at a local level, about examining cultural and religious practices in a way that cultural anthropologists might look at them. I wrote a book about Catholics in Western Germany during the middle of the 19th century and the way their shifting religious practices intersected with social and economic changes, and how these affected political developments.”

That book, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth Century Germany, was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press while Sperber was working as a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University. Sperber enjoyed being in Chicago, but, like most young scholars, yearned for a more permanent faculty position.

In 1983, as now, tenure-track appointments for historians were in short supply. Sperber worried that his professional interests were perhaps too esoteric, and that he might spend years toiling away in the academic trenches without getting the sort of job that would allow him to continue his research. Still, when a position opened up at MU he decided to give it a shot.

The selection process was long, and the competition keen. But he was successful, officially joining the MU faculty in 1984. “I’ve been here quite a while, so I guess it’s worked out okay,” says Sperber, now a Curators’ Professor of History.

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The Marx biography had its genesis in a research fellowship in Germany that Sperber completed a couple of years after his arrival at MU. At the University of Cologne he immersed himself in the historical doings of a small but influential set of revolutionaries based in the German Rhineland. Sperber knew a youthful Marx was one of the more prominent of these radicals. What he didn’t know was how little Marx the young revolutionary resembled the latter-day propaganda figure.

“I remember coming across a speech that he gave to the Democratic Club in Cologne in August 1848,” Sperber says, “in which he denounced the class struggle — and the idea of a dictatorship of a single class — as nonsense. Then he said that the struggle between the workers and the government of France in Paris in June of 1848 — the famous June Days — was all a misunderstanding. I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, that’s not the Marx I know. Maybe I need to write my own biography.’”

“It was 25 years between first thinking about this and the book actually appearing,” Sperber says with a chuckle. “But that’s not unusual in academic life. Things go slowly.”

The book that did emerge was a much-praised history of Germany’s 1848 insurrectionists called Rhineland Radicals. In it, as in his most recent book, he succeeded in bringing to the forefront a new perspective on Marx and his collaborators.

In Rhineland Radicals, Sperber argued that contemporary historians, economists and political scientists had gradually lost sight of Marx and his circle as real historical figures. His task, he wrote at the time, was to restore them to their “increasingly unfamiliar roles as revolutionaries.”

“That was a reflection of the age of the Cold War, when Marx in Eastern Europe and the Communist world had become just an icon — giant pictures, larger-than-life-sized sculptures of this dude with the large beard,” says Sperber.

“In the West, most people just thought of him as another academic social theorist: there’s Marx, there’s [Max] Weber, there’s [Emile] Durkheim, there’s John Stuart Mill. It seemed that we were losing the fact that Marx, the actual living guy, was a revolutionary. The 1848 revolutions were his one opportunity to stir up the masses, to try and provoke fighting on the barricades. It’s a point of view that shows up in my biography as well.”

Bringing a humanized, 19th century Marx to life in his new book took close to six years of research, much of it involving methodically working his way through the mountains of documents associated with Marx’s often-disorderly life. Though he didn’t always finish projects — most notably volumes two and three of his economic magnum opus, Das Kapital, which were completed after his death by his friend and colleague Fredrich Engels — Marx was a prolific, energetic writer. The recently updated edition of his and Engel’s collected German, French and English language works, known as the Marx-Engels- Gesamtausgabe or MEGA, will eventually total 114 volumes.

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Sperber has read extensively in this oeuvre, examining each book, article and letter in the language Marx originally used to compose it. From the MEGA and other sources he has created a deeply detailed depiction of Marx’s personal and professional life — the latter sometimes an exhausting mix of theoretical heavy lifting, organizational infighting, and work-a-day headaches; the former a barely successful, often poignant attempt to feed, clothe and shelter his family while maintaining the trappings of bourgeoisie respectability.

The MEGA also allowed Sperber to challenge a number of persistent historical misconceptions. One involved Marx’s relationship with Engels, whom he met for the first time in August 1844.

Scholars had long assumed Engels was immediately welcomed as close collaborator and confidante. While it is true the two quickly began working together, Sperber found that their partnership could be contentious, and that it almost unraveled early on.

“They had an enormous fight about a year after they met, largely because the women in their lives couldn’t stand each other,” Sperber says.

There were also lessons to be learned about Marx’s later intellectual development. Of particular importance was his reaction to the rising influence of positivism, the idea that the natural sciences, not philosophy, formed the basis of human knowledge.

Sperber cites letters from Roland Daniel, a German physician and socialist, as evidence that Marx, despite his intense interest in the theory of natural selection, remained ambivalent about the growing influence of discoveries in the natural sciences on economic and political theory.

Some radical thinkers who, like Daniel, had once embraced Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s metaphysical notion of historical progress, switched gears and accepted the centrality of science. Other members of this “young Hegelian” set refused. “They felt like positivism was ruining the ideas of Hegel,” says Sperber.

“We see Marx here in an intermediary, ambivalent position,” he says. “He was both accepting the authority of science but also having questions about it. That helps us understand him in the context of how his contemporaries responded to this same intellectual development.”

Such contextualization, argues Sperber, ultimately helps us understand Marx as a backward-looking radical, one who tended to view the events of his own day — social, political and economic — through the lens of the past.

“He favored the violent overthrow of existing governments, and he looked forward to some sort of dictatorial post-revolutionary régime,” says Sperber. “But I think it is fair to say that he never [intended] a genocidal form of economic development, some wacko thing like we saw under Stalin or Mao.”

Marx’s idea of revolution was grounded instead on events in France during the Terror; a series of actions that led to what Marx believed was the inevitable, and inevitably violent, displacement of one economic class by another.

Failure to appreciate this retrograde outlook has also led to misconceptions about his legacy as an economic theorist, Sperber says. “He’s the anti-capitalist economist; he’s the guy who invented the Soviet system of economic planning; and, for economists in Western countries, he is seen as a very unorthodox figure. The trouble with all this is that it bears very little relationship to Marx’s own economic ideas.”

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Back in his cramped lodgings on Dean Street, Marx’s musing on the macro-economic situation often took place against a backdrop of micro-economic meltdown. On one occasion in June 1852, Sperber recounts Jenny Marx writing to her husband in near desperation. Demands from creditors, most notably the landlady, have “put me in a state of terror. She has already had our belongings auctioned off. And in addition, baker, governess, tea grocer, grocer, and the terrible man, the butcher. I am in a state, Karl, I no longer know what to do.”

Cash from Marx’s journalistic efforts, including steady work for the New York Herald Tribune, provided some relief. But the income was seldom sufficient to pay both current expenses and previous debts, much less provide a healthy living environment for the Marx family.

A low point occurred in April 1855, as Marx’s son, Edgar, a precocious eight year old whom Marx described as his “enlivening soul,” died after a short, painful illness. Marx likely blamed himself for subjecting the child to the insalubrious conditions of the family’s Soho rooms. Friends and supporters reported him being near mad with despair at little Edgar’s funeral: “All of you cannot give me my boy back,” Marx cried out as they tried to console him.

As his fame and influence grew, however, things gradually improved for the family. They moved away from the Dean Street apartment and Marx, chiefly through the patronage of supporters, was able to provide a reasonable measure of middle-class comfort for his wife and surviving daughters.

Sperber writes that by the time Marx died on March 14, 1883, his intellectual legacy, however misconstrued, was becoming more secure. It turns out his ideas, however rooted they may have been in the past, would find fertile soil for future growth.

“It is remarkable how advocates of so many different causes were drawn to the man and his doctrines, or what they imagined his doctrines to be,” Sperber writes. “Leaders of the mass labor movements of early 20th century Europe, proponents of violent overthrow of the czar, cadres of global communist revolution, anti-imperialist activists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the mid-decades of the 20th century, or disconnected young intellectuals in the consumer society of 1960s Western Europe and North America were all Marxists.”

And some, of course, still are. Among those who found fault with the book were intellectuals and activists on the left who say Sperber has minimized Marx’s contemporary relevance.

Sperber admits to being somewhat perplexed by such concerns. The best way to frame the relevance question, he says, is to think of Marx in terms of other important persons identified with periods of great change. Take Martin Luther, for example.

“Luther is a great figure,” he says, “one of the originators of our modern world. But many of the issues Luther was concerned about, like ‘justification by faith alone,’ really don’t do a lot for most of us today… Although he was very much a late medieval, backward-looking figure, nobody seems to find it odd that someone might write a biography of Martin Luther.

“I think the same is true of Marx. He was a titanic figure and one who was instrumental in creating the modern world,” Sperber says. “But he was also, I think, fundamentally a backward-looking thinker; a figure of the era of the French Revolution, a period which is rather distant from our own.”

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