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- Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber, review
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- Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-century Life
The stakes seem more parochial. Interestingly, given the similarity of their approaches, there is not much overlap.
Still, Marx was also what Michel Foucault called the founder of a discourse. An enormous body of thought is named after him. But a lot of the significance of the work lies in its downstream effects. However he managed it, and despite the fact that, as Sperber and Stedman Jones demonstrate, he can look, on some level, like just one more nineteenth-century system-builder who was convinced he knew how it was all going to turn out, Marx produced works that retained their intellectual firepower over time.
And, unlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrial capitalism—and there were a lot of them—Marx was a true revolutionary. After his death, communist revolutions did come to pass—not exactly where or how he imagined they would but, nevertheless, in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed themselves to be, Marxist.
He saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to Socrates—turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted inside out—into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives. Apart from his loyal and lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, almost no one would have guessed, in , the year Marx died, at the age of sixty-four, how influential he would become.
Eleven people showed up for the funeral. For most of his career, Marx was a star in a tiny constellation of radical exiles and failed revolutionaries and the censors and police spies who monitored them but almost unknown outside it. The books he is famous for today were not exactly best-sellers. After four years, it had sold a thousand copies, and it was not translated into English until Marx had spectacularly bad handwriting; Engels was one of the few people outside the family who could decipher it.
The unfinished Paris manuscripts, a holy text in the nineteen-sixties, did not appear in English until Marx seems to have regarded none of that material as publishable. To the extent that those movements were reformist rather than revolutionary, they were not Marxist although Marx did, in later years, speculate about the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism.
With the growth of the labor movement came excitement about socialist thought and, with that, an interest in Marx. After , communism was no longer a utopian fantasy. Marx is a warning about what can happen when people defy their parents and get a Ph. Hegel was cautious about criticizing religion and the Prussian state; the Young Hegelians were not, and, just as Marx was being awarded his degree, in , there was an official crackdown. So Marx did what many unemployed Ph. There is a story, though Sperber considers it unsubstantiated, that once, in desperation, he applied for a job as a railway clerk and was turned down for bad handwriting.
In the eighteen-forties, Marx edited and contributed to political newspapers in Europe; from to , he wrote a column for the New York Daily Tribune , the paper with the largest circulation in the world at the time. When journalistic work dried up, he struggled. He depended frequently on support from Engels and advances on his inheritance.
Sperber contests this. Marx had less money to waste than historians have assumed, and he accepted poverty as the price of his politics. He wrote and published articles offensive to the authorities, and, in , he was kicked out of Cologne, where he was helping run a paper called Rheinische Zeitung. He went to Paris, which had a large German community, and that is where he and Engels became friends.
Engels, who was two years younger, had the same politics as Marx. Engels hated the work, but he was good at it, as he was at most things. Engels eventually became a partner, and the income helped him keep Marx alive. In , Marx was expelled from France. He moved to Brussels. Three years later, though, something happened that almost no one had foreseen: revolutions broke out across Europe, including in France, Italy, Germany, and the Austrian Empire. When unrest reached Brussels, he was suspected of arming insurgents and was evicted from Belgium, but he returned to Paris.
Rioters there had broken into the Tuileries and set the French throne on fire. He got the phrase from Engels. Bonaparte eventually declared himself Emperor and ruled until , when France lost a war with Prussia. The Paris Commune was a by-product of that war. So in Marx was forced into exile once again. He fled with his family to London. He assumed that the stay would be temporary, but he lived there for the rest of his life. The impressive bronze bust you see on his tombstone today was placed there, in , by the Communist Party of Great Britain.
What was Marx like?
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber, review
The number of first-person reports is not large, but they tend to agree. He was, in some respects, a caricature of the German academic which he had once expected to become : an imperious know-it-all with untamed hair in a misbuttoned frock coat. In professional matters, he was forbidding. He was a cogent speaker but had a lisp and was a poor orator; he knew it, and rarely addressed a crowd.
He was ruthless in print, made enemies of many friends and former allies, and did not suffer fools—a large subset of his acquaintance, in his view. Still, he commanded respect. His hair was black; his eyes were black; his complexion was swarthy. In private, he was modest and gracious. When he was not sick—he had a bad liver, suffered from bronchitis, and grew fist-size boils, which Sperber thinks were caused by an autoimmune disorder but which may have been a symptom of his liver disease—he was playful and affectionate. He loved Shakespeare, made up stories for his three daughters, and enjoyed cheap cigars and red wine.
His wife and daughters adored him. He became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, also from Trier, when he was eighteen and she was twenty-two. Sperber thinks that a fairy tale has grown up about the marriage, but Jenny is said to have been exceptionally beautiful, and she was devoted to Karl. He wrote passionate love poetry for her. The engagement lasted seven years, during which he finished his studies, and they rarely saw each other.
The relationship was mainly epistolary. Sperber believes that they had premarital sex. I certainly hope so. The one possible flaw in the domestic idyll has to do with a child born to their servant, Helene Demuth. Almost all women in nineteenth-century Britain who could manage to retain a servant did so. Engels claimed paternity. This was not implausible. Engels was unmarried and had a taste for working-class women; his longtime lover, Mary Burns, worked in a Manchester factory. It is sympathy for Marx that leads Sperber and Stedman Jones to insist that we read him in his nineteenth-century context, because they hope to distance him from the interpretation of his work made after his death by people like Karl Kautsky, who was his chief German-language exponent; Georgi Plekhanov, his chief Russian exponent; and, most influentially, Engels.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life - gabuhuxyhi.ga
The word the twentieth century coined for that was totalitarianism. His faith. But it was. Marx was an Enlightenment thinker: he wanted a world that is rational and transparent, and in which human beings have been liberated from the control of external forces. Hegel argued that history was the progress of humanity toward true freedom, by which he meant self-mastery and self-understanding, seeing the world without illusions—illusions that we ourselves have created.
This is what Feuerbach wrote about. We created God, and then pretended that God created us. We are supplicants to our own fiction. Concepts like God are not errors. History is rational: we make the world the way we do for a reason. We invented God because God solved certain problems for us. But, once a concept begins impeding our progress toward self-mastery, it must be criticized and transcended, left behind.
Otherwise, like the members of the Islamic State today, we become the tools of our Tool.
Marx was a philosopher. Marx liked to say that when he read Hegel he found philosophy standing on its head, so he turned it over and placed it on its feet. Life is doing, not thinking.
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It is not enough to be the masters of our armchairs. The cost, however, is a system in which one class of human beings, the property owners in Marxian terms, the bourgeoisie , exploits another class, the workers the proletariat. They do it because competition demands it.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-century Life
Marx was a humanist. He believed that we are beings who transform the world around us in order to produce objects for the benefit of all. John Gray , p. In fact, it is Sperber who seems so intent on laying Marx finally to rest and sealing him away in mid-Victorian England that he misses important connections.
We read Marx critically but took much from him. Regardless of what people say, Marx was open to new evidence and reluctant to affirm any truth as other than provisional. It was a brave try, but it will not do. Every form of postmarxist thinking to date has merely been a species of premarxist thinking.
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- Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber, review - Telegraph;
It would, in short, be possible to jettison every specific observation and to acknowledge every failed prophecy and yet be left with an attitude of mind that would give us a place to begin and a way to go that are not the whole story, but that provide essential elements of it and that are simply unavailable elsewhere. If nothing else, we can ponder a brief comment by the late Christopher Hitchens , p. Democracy was an idea before Marx.
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- Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life?
Social revolution was an idea before Marx. No one else has been either. Hitchens, C. New York: Hill and Wang. Marx, K. Theses on Feuerback. Retrieved February 22, , from www. Rowbothan, S. The Times Education. Retrieved May 2, from www. Smith, D. Vancouver: New Start Books. Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. Skip navigation. College Quarterly. The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.