Biographical writing can seem futile. This is true in a trivial sense, because on the surface, history is always shaped by the present. One of the best measures of a historian is their ability to recognize this influence, and to correct for it. Biographies are particularly subject to this limitation. Especially those of controversial political figures. Such histories must not only navigate the relationship between past and present, but the tensions between the public and private lives of their subjects.

Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life does an admirable job of negotiating just such difficulties. Given the role played by Marx’s thought in the long history of the 20th century, Marx’s biography is, by necessity, deeply imbricated in the political conflicts of years long after his death, in 1883. Marx was also a public figure during his own lifetime and, to perhaps a greater extent than any major intellectual figure of the 19th century, we have access to a range of materials both public and private with which to illuminate, but also obscure, the totality of the man. His work, or at least the terminology to be found therein, was made the basis for political movements that profoundly shaped the politics of the 20th century.

That Marx was claimed as the intellectual progenitor of Stalinism, far and away the most lethal ideology of an era defined by murder and cynicism, is seen by wide swathes of the intellectual landscape, from the far right to the moderate left, as a definitive refutation of Marx’s views. At the same time, dissidents from Bolshevist orthodoxy see in Marx, and thus also in his biography, a reservoir of theoretical truths that can be drawn upon to reject the views both of Marx’s opponents and of his intemperate friends. Since his death, the life of Marx has been subject to endless triangulations within these points of political reference.

There have been many attempts to write Marx’s biography in the past. Early examples veered between hagiography and attempts to locate the failures of early 20th century Marxism in the biographical details of the founder. Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, written in Berlin in the early 1930s by the Menshevik exile Boris Nicolaevsky, focused on Marx’s political action, as an attempt to explain the failures of Leninism. Karl Marx: His Life and Works, published slightly earlier by the council communist (and former Spartacist) Otto Rühle, contained more theoretical content, but was also leavened by a surfeit of intraparty tittle tattle. Marx’s opponents also entered the fray, with the best exemplar being Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939.) There, Berlin first evinced his lifelong view of Marx as monist, beholden to a singular idea that prevented him from grasping the manifold complexities of history and politics.

Karl Marx Realty. San Francisco, 2012.

Karl Marx Realty. San Francisco, 2012.

In the era of Stalinism and the Cold War, questions surrounding Marx’s politics became, if possible, even more fraught. Yet the serious biographical literature on Marx (as opposed to the partisan hackwork produced by figures at both extremes of the spectrum) became more nuanced. Werner Blumenberg, a cultural historian of moderate social democratic persuasion, published Karl Marx in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Karl Marx in Personal Testimony and Pictures) in 1962. Blumenberg focused more on the details of Marx’s personal and inner life. He did not neglect the public dimension of Marx’s affairs, but seemed much more unsure on that terrain, to the point of seriously misrepresenting Marx’s views on the Paris Commune.

David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, first published in 1973, must certainly represents the state of the art of Marx biographies. Running to more than 460 scrupulously researched pages, McLellan’s text is both a narrative of the events of Marx’s life and an attempt to parse the political and philosophical views that grew out of it. It is the apogee of Marx biographies, if by this we mean work that most thoroughly weaves together the biographical and theoretical strands. McLellan was, and is, a moderate liberal, and his agenda is quite clearly that of highlighting the simultaneous brilliance and incoherence of Marx’s oeuvre.

Sperber’s book is rather a different enterprise than that of McLellan. Similar to the latter’s book, it is exhaustively researched. Unlike the political scientist McLellan, Sperber is a historian, and in fact among the most prominent scholars working on the history of 19th century Europe in the English language. He has written widely, both on European topics and those specific to Germany. Sperber’s Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848-1849, is arguably the best treatment of the mid-century political revolts in Germany. In his Marx biography, Sperber’s stated goal is to steer clear of the complexities of the later reception of his subject’s work, focusing instead on locating him with the greatest precision possible within the political debates and cultural formations of his own lifetime.

There is much in Sperber’s telling that will be familiar to readers of previous biographies. Marx’s rollicking days as a student at Cologne and Berlin, his courtship of Jenny von Westphalen, his work in political journalism, and the long years of poverty that dogged him and his family through the 1850s and 1860s. Yet there is much in Sperber’s account that is fresh. Marx, as virtually all of his prior biographers have noted, was intensely fractious and sensitive to personal slights.

Marx-branded mobile fee advert. Germany, 2008.

Marxist mobile plan (flat fee remix.) Germany, 2008.

Few facts are more illuminating of the passionate intensity with which Marx was prepared to pursue intellectual quarrels than that his critique of Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own) is considerably longer than the book itself (and formed only one section of the manuscript that came to be called The German Ideology.) Sperber presents a sensitive reading Marx’s correspondence and his many controversies, framing them in the appropriate political, philosophical, and cultural background. We learn much about the role of police spies in the culture of exiled German socialists. Similarly, the role of Darwin’s thought in influencing Marx’s theory of stages is sensitively presented. Of particular interest is Sperber’s analysis of Marx’s On the Jewish Question, the analysis of which is not colored, as so many other have been, by an anachronistic reading of the biological anti-Semitism of the 20th century into the cultural anti-Semitism of the 19th.

While Sperber generally steers clear of the controversies that have shaped modern Marxology, he does stake out some interpretive turf of significance for more modern debates. This is particularly clear in his evaluation of the role of Hegel’s thought in that of Marx. Much orthodox Marxist thought, as well as the later contributions of the French school following the work of Althusser, has tended to see Marx’s Hegelianism as a youthful fancy sloughed off in his later, more scientific work.

The intensity of the rejection of Hegelianism has been part and parcel of the “scientific” approach to Marx. The need to defend Marx against charges that his intellectual achievements lacked substance has had numerous consequences, from Edward Aveling’s heavy translation of the Capital into English, which systematically excludes the earthier aspects of Marx in the original German, to Althusser’s neurotic insistence on the existence of an “intellectual gap” separating Marx’s early Hegelian writings from his later “scientific” work in Das Kapital.

If there is one virtue to Sperber’s account that stands above all the others, it’s the smooth integration that he effects between Marx’s early, philosophically inflected writings and the approach of his work on political economy later in life. Sperber makes clear that there was no essential contradiction between the two, but rather that the philosophical work on alienation forms a moral backdrop for the analysis of the workings of the capitalist system so thoroughly analyzed in Marx’s later work.

Sperber is not a Marxist, and is unstinting where he sees problematic aspects of in Marx’s economic work. This is particularly clear in his dissection of Marx’s attempts to resolve the transformation problem, and his elucidation of the significance of technology, and the organic composition of capital. Although Sperber’s reading of these questions is slightly unsympathetic, he nonetheless raises important questions for partisans of Marx’s modern critical project, without explicitly involving himself in the complex contours of the theoretical debates within 20th century Marxism.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, is refreshing in its capacity to provide the makings of more complex understandings of it, without insisting on making the biography determine the conclusions of such discussions. While some may view this as an abjuration of engagement with one of the most important political thinkers of the modern era, it’s fair to say that Jonathan Sperber has laid the groundwork for such analyses without insisting on conducting them himself. In this respect he has clearly moved the study of Marx and Marxism in a positive direction.


Photographs courtesy of Ana Gasston, George Kelley, and Andrea Van Baal. Published under a Creative Commons license.