Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
by Jonathan Sperber
Liveright, 2013, 672 pp.I have worked as a journalist for forty years, largely for left-wing and liberal publications, and in the last few decades, or until very recently, I may have heard Marx cited five or six times by people actively engaged in politics or shaping public opinion. I don’t know anyone under sixty who has read the first volume of Capital, let alone the second or third. I am sure there are professional historians or political scientists, even economists, who have done so, but that’s not my point. Until a recent burst of interest among young radicals in the wake of the Great Recession, Marx had become an irrelevant curiosity.
Jonathan Sperber’s new biography reinforces this dim view of Marx. Aptly subtitled “A Nineteenth-Century Life,” it is a portrayal of Marx, as well as his ideas, as the product of his time rather than ours. That means, Sperber writes, “remembering that what Marx meant by ‘capitalism’ was not the contemporary version of it, that the bourgeoisie Marx critically dissected was not today’s class of global capitalists, that Marx’s understanding of science and scholarship . . . had connotations different from contemporary usage.”
Sperber is right to portray Marx as a product of his times. Marx himself would approve of this approach. But Sperber goes astray in limiting the application and relevance of Marx’s ideas to the relatively brief time—from 1840 to 1880—in which he wrote. If a thinker discerns deeper trends within the history of his time, he may produce ideas that are relevant well beyond his passing; that is, I believe, the case with Marx. Substantial parts of Marx’s thought—and I am thinking primarily of the Marx of CapitaI rather than of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts—remain highly relevant to understanding the present.
Sperber is at his best when narrating what was so nineteenth-century about Marx’s life. He is particularly good in describing Marx’s religious background. Two years after Marx’s birth, his father, Heinrich, converted from Judaism to Protestantism so that he could serve as a lawyer in the Prussian-controlled town of Trier. He chose to become a Protestant rather than a Catholic—the most common religion in Trier—out of sympathy with the French Enlightenment, which he identified with Protestantism. This identification with the Enlightenment was passed onto the young Marx, who, at least in this way, was not in a state of rebellion against his father but following his lead. Sperber also reminds us that Marx began his career in journalism as a champion of bourgeois rights (notably, freedom of the press) rather than of socialism. In 1842 Marx, who was then editor of the Rhineland News, warned that “the intellectual implementation” of communist ideas would present a “genuine danger.”
By situating Marx’s politics in the debates of the time, Sperber explains where certain staples of twentieth-century socialist politics first originated. He shows how, after the disappointment of the 1848 revolutions, Marx turned to the idea that a socialist revolution would be born out of increasingly severe economic crises. Sperber writes that according to Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of Marx’s disciples and a founder of the German Social Democratic Party, “Marx’s constant expectation of an economic crisis became a standing joke among his London friends and associates.” This joke was to have a long half-life. During my days as a socialist activist, we used to yearn for a new Great Depression, and several political groups specialized in predicting its imminence.
Sperber is adept at showing that, as a political activist and journalist, Marx was not infallible. He had a conspiracy-laden view of Tsarist Russia. He actually believed that Whig prime minister Lord Palmerston was a paid agent of the Tsar—a notion similar to American right-wingers’ daffy view in the 1950s that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret Communist. Marx was also chided in 1859 by Ferdinand Lassalle for urging Prussia to go to war against France and Louis Napoleon. Marx wrongly saw Prussian nationalism as a vehicle for popular democracy. Lassalle, a German, disagreed, and his view was confirmed in 1870 when Prussia initiated a war with France.
But Marx was, on balance, prescient in his political judgments. He appreciated the emerging labor movement at a time when many of his follow socialists still placed their hope for the future on producers’ cooperatives. He didn’t buy the idea, common among some of his fellow socialists, that a country like Germany could go directly from absolutism to socialism. He saw the folly of the French left supporting Louis Napoleon after the 1848 uprising (an act recently mimicked by Egyptian liberals in their support of a military coup). And of all his contemporaries, he most fully understood the revolutionary importance of the American Civil War. Marx ardently backed the North and expected, even in the darkest days of the war, that it would triumph because of its industrial and demographic superiority. Sperber writes that “the campaigns of the Union Army came closer to Marx’s ideal of a revolutionary war than any armed conflict in his lifetime.”
Sperber is less adept when it comes to explaining Marx’s ideas or those of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who was his greatest influence. You can get a good introduction to John Maynard Keynes’s economics from Robert Skidelsky’s three-volume biography or to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thought from Ray Monk’s wonderful biography, but readers hoping to get a good idea of Hegel’s influence on Marx and of Marx’s philosophy of history or political economy are probably going to be disappointed by Sperber’s summary. His précis of Hegel is wooden. He devotes too much to a textbook summary of Hegel’s logic and epistemology and not enough to the historical dimension of his thought, including his concept of Aufhebung, or transformation and incorporation, which is central to Marx’s idea of the stages of history.
Until a recent burst of interest among young radicals in the wake of the Great Recession, Marx had become an irrelevant curiosity.
In recounting Marx’s later philosophy, Sperber focuses at length on what he claims is a contradiction between Marx’s “science” of history, which he derived from Hegel, and Marx’s acceptance of the findings of natural science. This discussion is muddled. While Sperber acknowledges that Marx was an admirer of Darwin’s theory, he criticizes Marx for suggesting Darwin leaned too much on Malthus’s economics in explaining plant and animal evolution. But naturalists continue to argue over models—punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism is one debate—for explaining evolution. Marx did not try to collapse natural science into economic history, as Sperber charges, but instead pointed out that Darwin could have been unwittingly doing so.
Sperber adequately summarizes Marx’s economics but dismisses its relevance because Marx’s classical assumptions became “outdated and unscientific to the economic mainstream.” Sperber’s view of Marx’s ideas, or of Marxism, reflects in part his own rejection of these ideas, but it also seems driven by a perverse application of his historical method, according to which an idea’s relevance must be limited to its immediate times. If economists subsequently chose to adopt a different kind of analysis from Marx’s, then, Sperber suggests, Marx’s must have been lacking.
Saying that a writer’s ideas are relevant only to his or her times is, in many ways, a tautology. The question is how to define the extent of those “times.”
Arthur Laffer, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp’s favorite economist, for example, had some notions about supply-side economics that made sense for about three years, from 1978 to 1981—until the tax cuts it promoted produced a much larger federal deficit. The books from that brief period—Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works or George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty—have long departed the remainder tables. Those ideas were dated, in the narrowest sense of the word.
But take Adam Smith’s ideas. Smith wrote at a time when England was still a pre-industrial country and the term “capitalism” was not even in use. Smith’s famous example was of the pin maker. Yet some of Smith’s core ideas—about supply and demand, cost of production, nominal versus real prices, and of course the market itself—have retained their power and relevance. Certainly, Marx’s ideas were of his times, but the question is what in this context counts as his “times”: is it Engels’s Manchester, or is it the long history of capitalism from the seventeenth century to our own?
I thought that in countering Sperber’s view of Marx’s ideas it might be useful to say what of Marx’s ideas are still relevant to our times. I am not saying that you can exactly translate Marx’s analysis into our time anymore than you can translate Smith’s, but I am saying that even though he wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx bequeathed some ideas that are still useful in the twenty-first. One way in which this point becomes obvious is when you consider Marx’s theory of history as well as his understanding of political economy.
1. The Stages of History: Marx got from Hegel the idea that history is law-like and progressive. Saying that there was a “science” of history did not mean it could be subjected to mathematical formulae; it meant that there were certain ongoing conflicts—Hegel and Marx would call them “contradictions”—that were driving history in one direction rather than another. Hegel rooted these in the attempt of “Spirit” (Geist) to understand itself, as found in the history of philosophy itself; Marx rooted the conflicts in the struggle between economic classes over the disposition of the surplus that workers produced. But what was important and innovative was the idea that history was neither outwardly determined by a supreme being nor chaotic and beyond understanding. To some extent, with their arbitrary decennial demarcations, American political thinkers have opted for chaos.
Marx not only helped provide us with a developmental view of history, he also helped us imagine the ways in which history moved through different stages, which Marx identified with successive modes of production, such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. What separated these stages were ruptures precipitated by conflict between various economic classes—for instance, between feudal landholders and a rising bourgeoisie, or the working class and factory owners. Each new stage would—and this comes from Hegel—transcend the previous as well as modify and then incorporate parts of it. The family, for instance, would survive the transition from feudalism to capitalism but also change in form. Marx’s schema was simplistic—some transitions were protracted, whereas others were convulsive—but he grasped that these transitions entailed not just a change in rule, but in how goods are produced and distributed.
2. Capitalism as a Historical Creation: Economists before and after Marx would try to understand the “economy” by constructing models that simplified what they thought to be the essential features of economic exchange, from which they derived laws and formulae that they could apply to the more complex economy. This approach often rendered capitalism and the capitalist “free market” as natural phenomena based upon human nature. By contrast, Marx saw capitalism as a historical creation born of struggles among landowners, merchants, manufacturers, peasants, and a new group of former peasants who, having been deprived of their access to land, were forced to sell their labor-power to capitalists. The market itself was created and sustained through laws that were adopted for that particular purpose. And what was created historically could be modified—unions, for instance, could raise wages—or even, Marx hoped, transformed.
3. Surplus Value and Profit: The turning point in economic history, according to Marx, came when workers became capable of producing a surplus beyond what they needed for their own survival. That surplus became the basis of class society and government. In early societies, the surplus could be measured in extra goods retained by the producers; later it was measured in money. Under capitalism, the surplus is extracted by those who own the means of production (capitalists) from the landless wage-laborers, who sell their labor power to the capitalists. Marx gets tangled up in trying to explain how the time put in by wage-laborers translates into prices, but what’s essential about the concept is the way it strips bare the struggle over the disposition of the surplus that is at heart of labor relations and domestic policy—including the current battles over income inequality and social spending. Without Marx’s theory of surplus value, one is looking merely at numbers, not at the organization of production.
4. Ideology and the Market: Politicians today often attribute magical powers to the “free market.” It can prevent recessions, ensure prosperity, and make everyone fat and happy. Marx called this attribution of special powers to the market a form of fetishism. (Psychologists today might also call it projection or transference.) It means conferring upon things or systems powers that emanate from persons. Economists do likewise when they reify capitalism as an economic system that emanates from human nature rather than seeing it as a system created and preserved through class conflict.
Marx’s idea of the fetishism of commodities (adapted from Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach), with which he begins Capital, is basic to his idea of capitalism and ideology. Individuals create a system or thing or institution; but instead of seeing it as their creation and embodiment, they see it as a distinct and separate entity and project upon it their own power of creation. By doing so, they give it power over them. In this way, the free market becomes seen as, and to some extent becomes, a power in itself.
There are, of course, ideas in Marx that are too simplistic or antiquated or simply wrong. Some of these can be found in his early works, which became very popular among sixties New Leftists. These include the idea of communism as a society where the division of labor is abolished and where workers “can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.” But they also include his more mature view of the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class.”
Something called socialism may still come into being, but it will not follow the path that Marx laid out.
And Marx’s projections of capitalist development, culminating in socialism, proved to be wrong. Society didn’t divide into a small bourgeoisie and a large blue-collar proletariat—devoted to what Marx called “productive labor”—that constantly had to battle to maintain its standard of living in the face of growing unemployment and increasingly severe recessions. Capitalism’s class structure has become more complex. It acquired intermediate strata; the production of surplus value spread beyond goods to services. And a new mixed economy has become capable of easing the class struggle. Of Marx’s successors, the revisionist Eduard Bernstein proved to have had a far more realistic view of capitalism’s future than orthodox Marxists like Karl Kautsky.
One can raise questions in the same vein about Marx’s stages of history. As Sperber notes, Marx and his contemporaries lived in the shadow of the French Revolution and believed that a similar kind of revolution would one day sweep away capitalism and give rise to socialism. Nothing of the sort has happened. The revolutionaries who led the Russian Revolution of 1917 came to describe its result as “socialism,” but there would be little resemblance between Marx’s view of socialism, which was to occur in the most advanced capitalist societies, and the brutal combination of feudal absolutism and state capitalism that took root in Russia. And in the developed capitalist countries, socialist movements have become devoted to reform rather than revolution. Something called socialism may still come into being, but it will not follow the path that Marx laid out.
There have been attempts to revise Marx’s last stages of history. The historian Martin J. Sklar, for example, suggested that the transition from competitive capitalism in the nineteenth century to corporate capitalism in the early-twentieth century was, in fact, a transition to a “mix” of capitalism and socialism. One of Sklar’s students, historian James Livingston, has tried to elaborate on this idea by arguing that the transition from capitalism to socialism should not be conceived as a clear rupture but as a long-term process that is currently underway. I am sure there are other efforts along this line, but they are not being debated by people who are actually engaged in politics.
Sperber makes the most, perhaps, of Marx’s failings in economics. “Marx’s basic economic principles,” Sperber writes, “had all been shaped by the intellectual trends and economic and political circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century. When his ideas finally percolated into a broader public domain, a good decade after his death . . . all these circumstances had changed.” Marx did run aground in trying to create a quantifiable economic theory that built upon Smith and Ricardo, and his theory of crisis—of capitalism inevitably collapsing under the weight of its contradictions—is unconvincing. But as Skidelsky writes in his biography, Keynes’s General Theory and Marx’s Capital “will outlive the fate of [their] plumbing.” What lives in Marx is his general view—shorn of particular predictions about capitalism and socialism—of economic history.
Sperber’s biography is useful. He has a superb grasp, as far as I can tell, of nineteenth-century European history. His portrayal of Marx’s family and his upbringing in Trier is invaluable as are his depictions of Marx’s political machinations in Paris, Brussels, Cologne, and London. But at a time when a professor of journalism at Columbia who has written a book about the history of economics can tell the New York Times that Marx’s CapitalI and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are the “worst books on economics” she has read, Marx’s ideas need to be given their due. And that’s the one thing that Sperber’s book fails to do.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of the New Republic.