“Great passions, which, due to the closeness of their object, take the form of small habits, grow and once more reach their natural size through the magic effect of distance,” wrote Karl Marx to his wife Jenny in 1856, as she journeyed from London to Trier. “My love of you, as soon as you are distant, appears as a giant … the love, not of Feuerbach’s human being, not of Moleschott’s metabolism, not of the proletariat, but the love of the beloved, namely of you, makes the man once again into a man.”
Typical Marx: Romantic, charismatic, cosmopolitan, and at once able to combine the workers’ revolution with protestations of uxoriousness. But also disingenuous, since it was during one of these absences that Marx managed to impregnate the family maid, Helene Demuth. Such are the personal and intellectual complexities that Jonathan Sperber pursues through 600 pages of tightly argued text in this profoundly important biography of “The Moor”.
In contrast to Francis Wheen’s raucous account of Marx’s life as hack, brigand and rapscallion, Sperber places the history of ideas at the heart of his study. And it is a refreshingly anti-populist take. According to Sperber, not only is Marx’s critique of capitalism of very limited applicability to the modern world, it was barely relevant when first published. Even in the 1860s his was the old world of Robespierre, Hegel, Adam Smith and the Spinning Jenny. Indeed, “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the 19th century and projected them into the future, than as a sure footed and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”
This biography is first and foremost a “nineteenth-century life” and Sperber, whose previous works have focused on the Rhineland during the 1848 revolutions, successfully positions the young Marx within the bourgeois world of Trier, as it existed under Napoleonic and then Prussian rule. At every stage of this book there is a new insight into what is usually familiar Marx territory – the complicated relationship with his beloved father Heinrich; the family’s tradition of Judaism; the relative poverty of Jenny’s family. And, most important, the origins of Marx’s lifelong disgust for the “society of orders”, the authoritarian and absolutist monarchies of pre-revolutionary Germany peopled with aristocrats, bureaucrats and military officers.
Sperber plays down the role of the Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach in shaping Marx’s understanding of alienation, and plays up the previously under-represented impact of Eduard Gans and Bruno Bauer. Stressing Marx’s time in both Berlin and Paris, he frames Marxian communism as an elemental response to the incredible productive forces unleashed by the industrial revolution.
What is certainly surprising is a new account of Marx’s time in Cologne, when he edited a liberal newspaper. Rather than regarding this as an awkward but financially necessary period of sacrifice, Sperber reveals how fulsomely Marx supported the laissez-faire, pluralist politics of the Rhineland bourgeoisie: “the system of commercial liberty hastens the social revolution. It is solely in that revolutionary sense, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.” This helps to explain that remarkable paean Marx and Engels offer up to the bourgeoisie at the start of The Communist Manifesto – the iconoclastic merchants transforming markets and destroying the old “society of orders”.
Sperber’s approach to the Manifesto is very much in the Cambridge tradition of political thought. His contextualised critique extends to Marx’s early attempts at communist ideology in The Paris Manuscripts, as well as the historical materialism of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Yet none of these texts provided much materialism for Marx. “How right my mother was! ‘If Karl had only made capital, instead of, etc!'” was supposedly one of Marx’s favourite bon mots, but what was all too real was the desperate poverty that plagued him and Jenny. With meticulous accounting, Sperber shows just how powerfully “this money shit” vexed Marx’s life – it killed his son Edgar and twisted his relationship with his mother, who wisely refused to allocate him the remnants of Heinrich’s estate. Poverty undermined Marx’s Victorian sense of manhood, entangled him in the vicious world of London’s emigre politics, and even shaped the fury of his philosophy – with personal desperation pushing him towards a much more radical revolutionary tone in the aftermath of 1848.
Friedrich Engels was the self-described “second fiddle”, who, along with some timely inheritances, saved the Marxes from total penury and allowed Karl the freedom to write Das Kapital. On the whole, Sperber is rather grudging about Engels – downplaying his philosophical contributions (particularly to The Communist Manifesto), blaming him for the endless feuds and splits that bedevilled their attempts to build a political party, and accusing him of wilfully misinterpreting Marx’s legacy for the 20th century.
This is at the heart of the book: by the time Marx was fully codifying his political economy, Europe’s intellectual currents had moved in a determinedly positivist direction. With varying degrees of success, Marx sought to accommodate his initial Hegelian presuppositions to this more scientistic era, beginning with applying the dialectic to Darwinism. Engels, by contrast, “was always a positivist” and in the aftermath of Marx’s death in 1883, “Engels’s version of Marx’s ideas tended to iron out Marx’s own ambivalence about positivism, and to pass over his Hegelian criticism of the conceptual understanding of the natural sciences”. This occurred at the same time as the development of a mass labour movement across Europe giving us, hey presto, “Marxism”.
Its bible, of course, was Das Kapital – although few cadres actually bothered to read it. And Sperber again shows the relative anachronism of Marx’s thinking by the 1870s. At its core was not an epic crisis of capitalism (there had been too many false dawns for that), but the question that David Ricardo and Adam Smith had been wrestling with since the late 1700s: the falling rate of profit. Marx tried desperately if vainly to offer an answer, but meanwhile the world was changing around him: industrial processes were reframing rates of surplus value; colonial markets were transforming the metropole’s economics; the mid-Victorian boom meant a growing middle class; a new service sector was emerging (“from the whore to the Pope, there is a mass of such scum”); and marginal utility theory was stressing the market interaction of consumer preferences. Yet Marx was still wrestling with James Mill and Thomas Malthus.
It is a compelling and convincing account. And there is so much else besides, from Marx’s investigations of antisemitism to his surprising affinity with British Toryism (in opposition to Russian czarism), to the medical condition behind his carbuncles, to his rather revisionist support for the gradualism of the English trade union movement. Sperber’s understanding of Marx’s personality is much deeper than that of other biographers – he was a tortured, bullish, emotional, obviously Anglo-German bourgeois figure.
But the failings of Sperber’s approach are also apparent. Part of his ambition in placing Marx within his 19th-century milieu is to allow us to understand a man in his times, but also distance him from present controversies about globalisation and capitalism. Yet this risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective. In the rest of the world, where capitalism is exhibiting exactly the same kind of energies it did in early-19th-century Britain, the relevance of Marx’s critique retains its potency. In Mumbai and Shenzhen, Nairobi and Rio, Marx is surely more than just a staid Rhenish intellectual with no purchase on the present. Which is why, of course, we remain interested in his life – as brilliantly recounted in this work.
• Tristram Hunt’s The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels is published by Penguin.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010