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Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. A Critical, Left, Review.

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Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. 2013.

“The point of my biography is to remove Marx from the 20th century/Cold War era binary opposition, in which he was either a keen analyst of capitalism and prophet of human emancipation, or an evil forerunner of totalitarian dictatorship and a deluded enemy of the free market. This latter, hostile attitude is still very widespread in the US. Describing Marx as a 19th-century figure, I think, makes it easier to consider his ideas.”

Jonathan Sperber. (Times Higher Education. 25.4.13).

“….very little achievement is required in order to pity another man’s shortcomings.”

Middlemarch. George Elliot.

When it was published last year there was praise for A Nineteenth Century Life. Diana Siclovan asserted that, “generations of students” will “get to know Marx” through Serber’s book. To Sperber’s many other reviewers, the picture that emerges is “rounded and humane”. He succeeds in “recreating a man who leaps off the page”. (Jonathan Freedland New York Times. 23.3.13.) The “historical Marx” is portrayed with “consummate skill” (Sheila Rowbotham. Times Higher Education. 25.4.13.).

To John Gray Sperber offers a “surefooted guide to the world of ideas in which Marx moved.” (New York Review of Books. 9.5.13) His awareness of the “revision of the history of socialist thought”, “downplaying the effects of the industrial revolution” and highlighting the centrality of religion, has for Diana Siclovan contributed to Sperber “extraordinary achievement”. (Reviews in History. August 2013.) Tristram Hunt compared the “brilliant embedding “ of A Nineteenth Century Life to the “Cambridge tradition of political thought.” (Guardian. 26.6.13)

Hunt refers to classics such as J.G.K.Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1973) and Quinten Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought. (1978). These books – amongst other landmark studies – were concerned with long-lasting transformations in the fabric of early modern ideas. The conditions which brought politics into the human, out from the divine, or cosmic, order, represented by, for example, Hobbess (Skinner’s more recent work) were far-ranging. In this, the ‘Cambridge’ writers explored normative political vocabularies, not only of Great Works but of wider social mentalités.

The claim that A Nineteenth Century Life provides a reconstruction of Marx, and what Gray calls the “world of ideas”, in the tradition of the Cambridge School’s work, on say, the emergence of “civic republicanism”, is high praise. Sperber himself finds his “model” for the biography not in previous lives of Marx but in Heiko Obermann’s Martin Luther, more of a “late-medieval than a modern figure”, and Ian Kershaw’s work on Adolf Hitler, that placed within with “the twentieth century of total war” (Page xvii). This show how to present a “complex individual” within the context of his or her time.” (Ibid)

Interest in the German Reformation is weak in Suffolk public libraries, and the popularity of books on Nazism is strong. It has been possible to consult only Kershaw’s Htiler (2008). This is, according to its New Preface, concerned with Hitler’s “highly personalised power” and his “charisma” aginst a backdrop of conditions, which he could not control. (1) Contrasts with Marx quickly spring to mind. The author of Capital had, in his time, only limited political influence. His ‘gift of grace’, if he had one, is not often compared to a war-lord, a Plebiscatarian ruler, a great demagogue or the leader of a political party – all features of Hitler’s career. The Kershaw precedent, both on the choice of the individual subject, and the context he operated within, is therefore something of a red herring.

We have read Marx for many years beyond what was published in his own time – drafts, letters, posthumous memoirs, asessments, and countless biographies and commentaries. A Nineteenth Century Life now presents the “remarkable fresh source” the MEGA (Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe) edition of his, and Engels’ works, now nearing completion (Pages xi – xii). This archival monument, along with the recent “historical scholarship” cited above by Sicolvan, will, he asserts, “begin to delineate an era” different to our own. Sperber’s skills as a historian of the Germany of Marx’s time, and the European Revolutions of 1848-1851, are, it seems, designed to probe the circumstances, the course of events, and the significance of this material.

David McLennan, perhaps the English language authority on Marx’s biography, and also a ‘Marxologist’ (a field Sperber does not claim to master), casts a note of caution. (Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. 2013) The “hundreds of small details” within the “broader framework of his life” may be useful for putting the man in his setting. “But their combined impact is far too subtle to change our picture of Marx. At best, it does flesh it out a little”. Hans Despian claimed, “new accuracy in personal biography” but not much else. (Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. 2013)

An earlier Biographer, D. Riazanov, founder of the Moscow Marx-Engels Institute, which began the publishing project known today as MEGA, observed (1927) that, “Marx and Engels were …men of a definite historical moment”. From their “immediate home influence” ”they were directly drawn into the historical vortex of the historical epoch…..” His text however bears the heavy imprint of the present on the past. The Leninist Riazanov saw his party’s “democratic centralism” inside the 1840s Communist League. (2)

Does Sperber avoid such anachronism? Marx is not treated as the founder of Official Communism. Yet A Nineteenth Century Life often employs modern concepts, “free market liberalism” stands out amongst others, to Marx’s early and later career. This enables Sperber often to paint an early Marx hostile to class struggle. He equally makes Marx “look backwards” towards the French Revolution to the extent that it overshadows his political world-view. Marx, he repeats throughout A Nineteenth Century Life combined “Jacobin politics with communist economics.” (Page 35) Whether Sperber succeeds in helping unravel why the communist welcomed the development of the capitalist productive forces, and supported radical republican ‘bourgeois’ reforms as a stage in the revolutionary process, is debatable.

Does Sperber’s labour bear any fruits? Some consider that Sperber wishes not only to place Marx in the 19th century, but also to consign the person and his ideas to the past. (Barry Healy. Links. 26. 7.13) For Sperber Marx was “backward looking figure” who is “not our contemporary”. There is a hint of contrived sorrow as we learn that Marx “yearned” for his economic ideas to be taken seriously by the mainstream; they were destined for a “ghettoised existence” in labour movement “counter-culture”. (Page 462) Yet if A Nineteenth Century Life helps free us up to look at Marx’s views “in his own terms” – an “if” that this extended article begins and ends with – it always returns to the public significance of what he said, wrote, and did. As McLennan states, “Context does indeed help to understanding of such ideas but it does not prevent their relevance.”

One suspects that the light shone on “Marx the Petty” will remain in many readers’ minds. Sperber never shrinks from the duty to inform readers of Marx’s unacknowledged son, his inability to manage money while insisting on keeping up respectable appearances, his anti-Semitic remarks, and his bugbears, such as Tsarist Russia. Those with perhaps grander vision, concerned with the relevance of Marx’s ideas, have focused on questioning Sperber’s account of his economics, his philosophy, and what has become known as historical materialism.

This lengthy review is about one topic, probably the most relevant of all, Marx’s politics. It will challenge what is the central thread of Sperber’s account: that “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.”(P xix) and that, “What remained constant was the French Revolution and its great moments in 1789 and 1793 as both an image and a model.”(Page 559)

Looking Backwards.

A Nineteenth Century Life is thorough, and sometimes interesting, in describing Marx’s early years. There are descriptions of the family, notably his lawyer father, a Jewish convert to Protestantism, the influence of his Enlightenment principles on the growing man, his education, and surroundings. In contrast to the handful of pages that John Spargo, Marx’s first English language biographer devotes to this, Sperber’s readers now have an informative thirty-five. (Karl Marx 1912) A visit at the Karl Marx Haus in Trier could supplement the written word, but one fears eyes already glazing over. The account of the subsequent student, which begin early with his courtship, uncovering a “maiden’s secrets” and marriage to Jenny von Westphalen may nevertheless, revive a few readers (Page 77).

More will be interested in Marx’s intellectual formation. At the University of Berlin Eduard Gans, who endorsed civil liberties and parliamentary government and interpreted Hegel “slightly to the left”, taught him. (Page 59) While Sperber asserts that Gans was an “important and “somewhat underrated” influence on Marx the discovery of the Young Hegelians, and those who later became communists, like Moses Hess and Frederick Engels, was more decisive. The liberal opposition to the German autocrats, and their constitutional nationalism, formed the backdrop to this aspect of the early Marx’s thinking.

The philosophy of Hegel, and the Young Hegelians, is, Sperber conventionally acknowledges, a hard topic. The works of those who have recounted the journey, from Hegel to Marx, also illustrate of the difficulty of separating out intellectual from other strands in Marx’s biography. Many today begin by emphasising the importance of the critique of religion in this transition. But nobody has achieved consensus in tracing Marx’s ideas in this journey, then, and later, strewn with disputes with figures such as his colleague Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, and his targets, like Max Stirner, back to his recorded life. Some have observed that the concentration on Marx skews an appreciation of the philosophy involved. Others, notoriously, consider the entire episode part of a “pre-history” of ideology from which Marx was to break free. (3)

A major figure in Marx’s procession through the Young Hegelians’ critical philosophy, Ludwig Feuerbach claimed to restore Hegel’s philosophical dialectics – the process of “projecting” “being” into objectivity, the Absolute, God – to its material, individual, human origins. It may be that we can understand Marx’s political evolution through considering the way he worked his philosophy into a political way of confronting the material issues of his time.

Marx’s first political interventions were in the field of journalism. A Nineteenth Century Life follows the trail left by Marx’s time as a contributor and an Editor in Cologne on the Rheinische Zeitung (1842 – 1843). Sperber calls its launchers “bourgeois liberals” (Page 92). They were certainly bourgeois. Franz Mehring described them as a politically “extremely moderate” and concerned about economic demands. Its financial backers’ “chief aim”, David McLennan observed, was to campaign for measures that would help the expansion of industry and commerce.” (4)

Marx would not have ruffled the prosperous bourgeoisie when he criticised the first, reported, ideas of communism. His defence of the liberty of the press, that is, in the backers’ eyes, their press, would not have been out of place. Above all he had a “pro-free market stance” (Page 96) With Heinrich Brüggemann he advocated free trade. In this way Marx reflected “pro-capitalist and pro-free market nineteenth century liberalism” (Page 104)

But in a pair of famous articles about the customary rights of peasants to take forest wood, and the plight of vintners, Marx began to plead for the cause of the poor and the workers. A small corner of Marxology is devoted to these pieces, which speculate on his feelings of justice. Sperber emphasises more political criticisms of the Prussian bureaucracy and its responsibility for the poverty of the rural inhabitants and wine-growers. In January 1843 the Prussian authorities responded. They announced that the paper would cease publication. Marx lost his position as the stockholders acquiesced and was thrust into the most radical sections of the Young Hegelian movement

As he radicalised, without the need to look over his shoulder at capitalist shareholders, Marx continued to express his concern with social and civic rights through the flowery language of the Young Hegelians. The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-4), which called for democracy, remained influenced by Hegel, but turned his ideas upside down. Marx ‘placed the state on its head’ by returning it to the people. Rousseau, Sperber argues, influenced the result. “Marx’s idea of the unity of the particular with the universal, of the private interests of civil society with the general interests of the state in a democratic regime, were not dissimilar to Rousseau’s concepts, if expressed in Hegelian form.” (Page 115) At the same time Sperber paints him as never having entirely lost his economic liberalism. He had been enthusiastic about the free trade. This would not be dropped. “Even after he became a communist he would continue to be an adherent of free trade.” (Page 92)

To the late Lucio Colletti these writings set out the ground for his life-long politics. Marx, to Colletti developed from Rousseau a whole range of ideas, from attacks on the remaining trappings of aristocratic society, the pretensions of Parliaments (limited or full suffrage), and concluded with a belief in the state’s ultimate disappearance These notions were premised on a critique of the separation of state and civil society. He cast private property as the father of alienated modern citizenship. Marx did not admire social contract theories, or Rousseau’s version of one. But right from The Critique, he had taken over from Rousseau a “clear statement of the dependence of the state upon society, a critical analysis of Parliamentarianism, accompanied by a counter-theory of popular delegation and a perspective showing the need for ultimate suppression of the state itself.” (5)

Many would agree that a democratic reading of Rousseau’s “liberties of the ancients”, support for public participation, republican ethics, and equality of rights shaped Marx’s political formative years. Sperber is decided, as we have noted, that the “Jacobin phase of the French Revolution”, “political change by means of the violent overthrow of existing governments” was his life-long goal (Page 534) He also envisaged “revolutionary war”.

But what of the immediate “context” presented in the first half of A Nineteenth Century Life? In wider respects there is very little. These 1840’s principles are not contrasted with much of the rest of the “nineteenth century liberalism” of the time. Political liberalism had produced some memorable works. Many of them are highly relevant to any discussion of the French Revolution. Benjamin Constant (1767 – 1830), Madame de Staël (1766 – 1817), François Guizot (1787 – 1874) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) They mistrusted Rousseau’s admirers, attacked the Sovereignty of the General Will, were viscerally critical of the Jacobins, and preferred ‘modern’ private freedom in civil society to republican virtue. Benjamin Constant’s argued that the Terror struck at sincere republicans, devastated the friends of the Revolution, before laying waste to France (Des effets de la Terreur 1797).

These writers – perhaps given their political and ideological roles, Organic Bourgeois Intellectuals would be a better term – were not primarily concerned with markets or capitalism. They were, nevertheless, keen, in varying degrees, to defend the rights of property, and conditions for people to “enrich themselves” (to echo Guizot). Benjamin Constant’s Principes de Politique (1815), for example, defended ownership and wealth qualifications as the basis for participation in political life. The 1830s July Monarchy may have replaced the Bourbon restoration, and brought Philippe “l’égalité” to power, but its Parliament had only 200,000 electors.

Sperber refer to the ideas of only one of these defining figures. Marx’s former teacher Eduard Gans was a friend of Tocqueville. Marx himself briefly cited Democracy in America (1835, 1840) in On the Jewish Question (1843). He welcomed the book’s evidence of “secularisation of government” in the United States, but went beyond “political emancipation” to demand “human emancipation” from all religion, including Judaism (Pages 130-31). Marx’s controversial conflation of “Judaism” with “capitalism” (all commas inverted) is a subject in itself. But he clearly did not identify with the liberal desire of Constant and the others to leave well alone in people’s private faith and lives. This liberalism as practised in circles close to government in France, under the July Monarchy (1840 – 1848), despite Tocqueville’s claim that it had “destroyed forever” what remained of the Ancien Régime, is not often considered one of Marx’s inspirations. (6)

The Universal Class.

Marx the Communist emerged during the later 1840s. He discovered that the point was not to interpret the world but to change it. Marx began to stand for working class self-emancipation. The role of the working class, as a universal agent of emancipation, as a “hope”, even a religious aspiration, is a key subject for any biography of Marx. Hal Draper states, “Quite early, by 1844, Marx came to the conclusion that, to achieve a communist transformation of society, the proletariat first had to conquer political power. This idea played a basic role for him, and various terms expressing it dot his writings: not only ‘conquest of political (or state) power’, but ‘rule of the proletariat;’ in particular; the outcome would be a ‘workers state’ in terms of the British movement, this meant ‘proletarian ascendancy.” (7).

In Sperber’s account Marx had discovered a belief in the potential of the proletariat as a way out of the political and philosophical dilemmas that confronted the German radical milieu. As the reformists failed to achieve reforms, running up against the stubborn Prussian autocracy and immobile German statelets, he looked elsewhere. He found a vehicle in the working class.

Why was this option taken? Sperber is assured, “Marx, one could say, invented the working class for political reasons: to realise the aspirations emerging from his frustrations with authoritarian Prussian rule. His political reasons were shaped by the Young Hegelians’ philosophical efforts to find a human and material version of Hegel’s cosmic unity of the development of Absolute Spirit, and by French radicals and socialists’ criticisms of the post-revolutionary order in country.” (Page 126)

It is striking that, contrast; Kershaw’s Hitler is circumspect about why and when the founder of the Third Reich became an anti-Semite. (8) Sperber, we see, plumps with few qualifications for what is largely a gratuitous act of intellect and will. Hans Desapin even suggests that he considers that Marx “invented” the working class “ to achieve subjective personal aspirations.” (Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. 2013.)

Marx had pinned his hopes on a political constituency that would carry out his – developing – ‘programme’. Philosophical speculation (‘critique’) gave way to an earthly embodiment of reform and a better future: the proletariat. The “moving force behind, and the subject of history” took solid form. Yet the turn was not based on direct knowledge of the labouring masses. “Marx’s personal acquaintance with the working class, with its sufferings, actions, aspirations, and ideas, was barely beginning when he placed his revolutionary hopes in it.”(Page 126)

What the working class was supposed to do was gradually clarified. In the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1834–4) Marx talked of “German emancipation” by a “class with radical chains”, which “has a universal character because of its universal suffering..” “which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity”. The goal was communism, a classless society. “This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat.” (9).

For Sperber “In Marx’s view a political revolution required a class of civil society to identify its particular emancipation with the universal emancipation of civil society.” (Page 125) To David McClellan Marx took the view that the proletariat would fulfil a role analogous to that of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution. That is, it, would sweep away the society of ‘orders’. (Karl Marx. Editions from 1975 onwards) For Tristram Hunt Engels, unlike Marx, had direct contact with workers. Yet he had also been pre-disposed to this faith from “readings of Hegel, Feuerbach and Hess”. He came to Manchester and wrote the Condition of the Working Class in England (1844-5) and “sought to square reality with his pre-existing philosophical certainties.” If we follow this interpretation the role of the workers was to “validate” Marx’s theory. (10)

Was this picture of communism – fulfilled by the proletariat – then primarily Marx’s creation? A common, if not commonplace, observation is that the working class replaced Hegelian belief that the state could fulfil the role of the ‘universal’. Or that the proletariat fulfilled Rousseau’s wish to bind together particular with general interests. Marx had shifted through a series of positions on these theories to arrive at a new synthesis.

Our own Inquiry into the Nature of Human Understanding indicates that we will never be certain about what exactly propelled Marx or Engels to take the side of the proletariat. Apart from philosophy and German politics a sense of outrage at injustice may be conjectured. But the existence of movements in the working class that Marx became swept up in is something we can rate and weigh more easily. The issue for a biographer therefore shifts from an individual’s ideological framework to the mentalités, institutions and organisations, of the time.

In series of works the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) a description of “radicalised Parisian workers” marked “a new stage in Marx’s invention of the working class.” (Page 149) However, in The Holy Family (1844), The German Ideology (1845-6) and the Poverty of Philosophy (1846-7) the emphasis became “the doctrines of socialism and communism” as offered by proletarians. (Page 171) Setting working people free became less of an abstract, or ‘philosophical’ call for the end of social bondage and became influenced, and constrained, by what proletarians themselves said they wanted. In this area Marx did not make anything up. He searched, discovered, and analysed.

One proletarian writer in particular, the former printer, Joseph Proudhon, was held to account for his failure to understand Hegel, dialectics, and political economy. In his critique of Proudhon’s Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosphie de la misère (1846) Marx elaborated his “basic concepts” in the economic field, “use value, exchange value and modes of production.” (Page 175)

Sperber makes the observation that the simplified ‘dialectics’ offered by Proudhon, “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”, are the hallmark of a certain “Marxist methodology” (more accurately Diamat). But his claim that criticism of Proudhon was really an “externalised form of self-criticism” is less obvious. (Page 175) Marx’s most polemical critiques, extending to Revolutions (1848) are, we are told, really an “externalisation”, a way of attacking his own previous beliefs. In this case it may well simply be – confirmed by reading the text – that Proudhon was talking nonsense.

After having consigned Proudhon to the Gemoniae scalae Marx offered his own ideas. The Poverty of Philosophy talked of “economic conditions” which made “the mass of the people of the country into workers.” The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. The mass is this already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle…this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.” In this struggle, “the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself” mobilising “all the productive forces” inside the old society. It will substitute for the old society and “association which will exclude classes and their antagonism.” (11)

Any approach to Marx has to touch of the life of the concepts set out in the Poverty of Philosophy: “workers”, the unification of the “mass” the “struggle of class against class” and the transmutations of the “political.” All of the terms were transformed during the 19th century. A new continent of working class history was emerging, as the 1848 Revolution was the first during which (as Tocqueville noted over and over again) the arrival of socialism on the political stage. Describing Marx as a ‘Jacobin’ admirer of Rousseau and a residual free trader, will prove a poor guide to this history, biographical or not.

Politics, Spectres and the Manifesto.

Marx did not enter the political field through a mass movement. This, it should go without saying, needs underlining. His intellectual friendship with Frederick Engels had now turned into political co-operation. They became involved in organised semi-conspiratorial or “clandestine” political groupings, some of which became the Communist League (founded 1846).

Sperber describes the personal clashes in the League, notably a long-standing feud with the rival, Karl Grün, over his weakness for Proudhon’s state-supported co-operatives – Sperber’s summary way of describing Proudhon’s “Mutualism’, a self-organised economy. The marginalisation of Wilhelm Weitling, the autodidact author of Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom forms another strand. Political differences came to the fore about the aim of the “overthrow of the bourgeoisie”. Marx and Engels advocated backing the same class when it fought against the monarchy and nobility in countries like Germany. Others, like Weitling, wanted an immediate violent overthrow of the existing society. In colourful terms, he proposed an army of convicts to lead the uprising. Marx opposed him, famously announcing, “Ignorance has never yet helped anyone”. (Page 179)

Readers will not find in Nineteenth Century Life a clear description of what was at stake in these heated discussions. So we have to cite Tristram Hunt. Marx, and Engels, thought that, “a long process of political engagement which would see socialist commitment to a bourgeois-democratic revolution as a stepping stone towards communism.” Marx was apparently not a “professional revolutionary”. But his friend was prepared to get his hands dirty. Hunt claims that Engels went on to use a “brutally successful medley of threats, divide and rule, denunciations and ideological bullying” to win support for these ideas, is not paralleled by an account of similar tactics in Sperber’s writing. (12)

These disputes took place in venues across Europe But France, ever since the 1844 Franco-German Yearbooks, held a special place. Both Marx and Engels had become extremely familiar with French socialism, as had their colleague Moses Hess, whose relation to the Manifesto is significant. The Communist Manifesto (1847-8) was jointly authored with Engels. Engels’ Principles of Communism (1847, and the draft (A Communist Catechism) is a demand for the “liberation of the proletariat” and its formation into a “tightly knit” class that could carry out this mission. As anybody with the slightest familiarity with these writings is aware they devote some time to radical ideas circulating in the working class and radical movements. Sperber largely confines himself to Proudhon.

A Ninteenth Century Life tackles the Communist Manifesto largely through a German prism. The metaphor of a “spectre”, we are told, first appeared in an earlier (1842!) article in which he alleged that the Prussian government had a “childish belief in ghosts, seeing the demand for freedom of the press as a “French spectre”. Sperber develops this “philosophically” to refer to Prussian inability to see beyond sense imrpessions to “human rights” as offered by the “Hegelian political spirit” (Page 205). Communism in the Manifesto also went beyond “childish” perceotions. Fortunately such reflections on ghosts, hobgoblins and spectres, are not extended to the length offered by Derrida’s “hantologie” (hauntology) in Spectres de Marx (1993).

Marx was no prophet of globalisation. The frusty and backward looking Prussian government was, we are informed, the target behind Marx’s famous “economicum for the bourgeoisie”. To explain this Sperber takes the opportunity to inform us that the Manifesto was written in German. The sentence that begins, “all that is solid melts into air…” should be translated more accurately, he patiently expounds, “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporates, everything sacred is deconsecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their postion in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.” (Pages 206 – 207)) That is, economic power would terminate the remnants of the Prussian Ancien Régime, its ideology would disppear, and a “secularised world view” would take the place of whatever sprites lingered in the country. Put simply, the world of Friedrich Wilhem IV’s Prussia would end.

Perhaps. Except that in the English original noun man (singular) “man is at last compelled to face…”, in this sense, refers to human beings in general. We would need a lot more evidence to prove that “in other words” it particularly pertained to Prussians, and their revenants.

Sperber’s account is also notable for the claim that Marx “pressed into service the ideas of his Berlin teacher, Eduard Gans, to evoke human history as the history of class struggle. This was already present in his Zietung articles, where he had been “closely following in the footsteps” of the professor, noting post French revolution charges in that were demolishing the laws of the middle ages. In this instance, “Comparing Gans memoirs with the Manifesto highlights Marx’s use of his teacher’s text.”(Page 208) Gans, whose lectures Marx had attended ten years previously, described, “master and slave”, “patrician and plebeian” and the “idle man and the worker” standing “against one another”.

Another claim, at one time gaining limited popularity, is that the Communist Manifesto owed something to the latter-day Fourierist Victor Considerant and his Manifeste de la Démocratie au XXéme siécle (1843/1847). Georges Sorel, for example, drew attention in 1908 to the relation between its picture of class polarisation, and the Manifesto. Considerant talked of three historical stages, ancient society, feudalism, and the “new industrial feudalism” in which there was a “guerre flagrant” between Le Capital and Le travail. He advocated the “emancipation du travail”. Few would however think that much of his cross-class, divinely infused, “démocratie pacifique” thunders throughout the pages of the Manifesto. (13)

Commentators have advanced the cause of many other claimants to have entered, acknowledged or not, into the words and presuppositions of the Manifesto. There are proponents of the “stages” of history, such as Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un table historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1795), the sociology of Auguste Comte, not to mention Hegel’s own epic account of the movement of the Absolute Idea in Nature and History. It could, had has been, argued that these pictures of human progress are at least as important to Marx and Engels as class conflict. In this respect such comparisons are important.

Intellectual history is not, nevertheless, advanced much by Sperber’s ‘discovery’. It is no doubt satisfying to declare that there is no need to praise anybody for a book’s ideas, since somebody else always did it. But, as David McClellan notes, with academic irony, the comparison with Gans lacks “specific reference”. Sorel’s discovery is not generally repeated today. Nor no doubt will Sperber’s.

There are weightier accounts to set aside Sperber’s skeletal account of the Manifesto. This is not simply because a book would be needed to follow through all the references and arguments of this “highly personal” (two personalities at least) document. It is that the ideological field that the Manifesto enters lies first and foremost in the evolving ideas and forms of the left. These multiple contexts receive a 185-page treatment by Gareth Stedman Jones in the Penguin edition of the Manifesto (2002), not to mention a rebuke against Jones for his religious emphasis, and latent “anti-totalitarian” views, of 10 dense sides by Jacob Stevens. (14)

In A Nineteenth Century Life Sperber moves from history under the sign of the class struggle, the (to modern leftists) claim that nationalism and nations were evaporating.

From the critique of utopian socialists and “feudal or reactionary socialism” Sperber fastens on the denunciation of the German True Socialists as “lackeys of Germany’s conservative governments”, which, unfair or not, was a “new theme”. Why exactly were they targeted? A suggestion is that this was perceived as an obstacle to Marx and Engels’ plans for revolution. In this respect one theme in A Nineteenth Century Life rings out loud and clear, “The action programme of the Manifesto was a plan for revolution and civil war, based on the previous experience of the Reign of terror, the most radical phase of the finch revolution.” (Page 210 – 211) “The ten-point programme in the Manifesto was designed specifically for a revolutionary government, one modelled on the radical, Jacobin phrase of the French Revolution of 1789.”(Page 210)

Marx and the Politics of the French Revolution.

A leitmotif, then, of A Nineteenth Century Life is an interpretation of Marx’s politics as Jacobin. Sperber underscores the degree to which his politics were modelled on the French Revolution. In Sperber’s Introduction he states, “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.”(P xix). The rest of the book is regularly punctuated with this claim – the history of the 1848 Revolutions, their aftermath, up till the Paris Commune of 1871. Sperber ends his work, as we have already cited, by stating that of Marx “What remained constant was the French Revolution and its great moments in 1789 and 19793 as both an image and a model.”(Page 559) This resulted in a “pronounced backward orientation”, “a tendency to envisage the future in terms of the past.” (Ibid)

In 1939 Arthur Rosenberg noted (as many others have before and since) that the most radical phase of the French Revolution, 1793-4 left deep impressions. “The entire subsequent history of all the popular European moments has been inflected by this ‘moment’. (15) It remains true in a sense in the 21 century; there are intense debates, amongst intellectuals and politicians in France in the present day. But A Nineteenth Century Life has a more direct object. The French Revolution continues to be present throughout the book. From the failures of the 1848 Revolutions, right to the aftermath of the Paris Commune (1871) Marx remained within the Jacobin problematic.

Was Marx, “looking backwards” then disposed to effect the ‘Jacobin’ translation of the General Will – the unmediated dominance of a Party of the People? Did this imply the right to Guillotine and suppress enemies of the party-people, confiscate the property of émigrés, to wage revolutionary war against countries that oppose them?

Sperber thinks this was a determining facet of his politics. His political strategy in Germany had been “evoking the 1789 Revolution. He had called for a German republic one and indivisible, for a revolutionary war against Russia and had glorified and endorsed the radical and terrorist actions of the Jacobins.” (Page 287) Doubtless to show his Terrorist side Sperber cites Marx’s March Address to German comrades (1850). Marx said that “far from opposing so-called excesses – popular vengeance” against individuals or public buildings – they should “take over the leadership of them” (Page 250)

Transporting not just the Revolution but Robespierre into Marx is not an easy task. There are those, like Slavoj Žižek who believe that there is something in the pursuit of Truth and Virtue through Terror, and others who indulge in paper support for Revolutionary Justice. But in what context did this ‘moment’ exist? To begin with the Jacobins were not a party of the working class, they were a “club” not a party at all and no Marxist has ever called them proletarian. Robespierre only demanded – in the debates over the Déclaration des droits de l’homme (1793 version) – “limits” on the rights to private property. Jacques Guilhaumou’s description of Robespierre’s ideology as ‘ egalitarian liberalism’ – his own current inside the Jacobin’s was the ‘extreme centre’ not the most radical revolutionary force – might best lay out the gulf that separates this Jacobin strand from Marx’s communism. (16)

Both the nature of the French Revolution, and the Jacobins’ programme and actions, the degree of assimilation, and what this meant for Marx are therefore a matter of intense dispute. A wish to run society “transparently”, hostility or impatience with representative democracy, is often associated with scorn for those devoted to private life and interests, if not a wish to bring them under direct public control. If we accept that Marx had drunk from this stream of thought, we might suspect that his youthful “liberalism” was on the side of “positive liberty”. That is, a “république une et indivisible” that brooks no factional dissent. Criticisms of him, from ‘Cold War’ debates about his “totalitarianism”, are never far behind.

We could cavil at the claim that Robespierre’s support for “revolutionary war” was an integral part of his outlook. He was the man who declared that you could not export a revolution by bayonets. Sperber also fails to provide more than a few words in 1851 for his assertion that Marx ecourgaed terrorist methods. There is nothing resembling the hysteria and cruelty of the Incorruptible that we learn of in Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity (2006) Nor is there a trace of the pitiful sentimentality of the Cult of the Supreme Being and hatred of “aristocratic” atheism in Marx or Engels’ works. And we have not even begun to look into differences amongst the Revolutionaries, or the views of other Jacobins, like Saint Just. (17)

In complete contrast to a Nineteenth Century Life, Michael Löwy asserted (some time back) that, “Marx believed that the socialist proletariat should divest itself of the revolutionary tradition of the eighteenth century.” This conviction, Löwy observed, should be set beside Marx’s picture of the Revolution, as a progressive bourgeois revolution. Famous modern debates associated with the name of the late François Furet and others on the classes and forces actually in play after 1879 may cast light on what Marx assumed about the Revolution. But this was primarily a strategic line. It was the result of Marx’s “anti-Statism”, the hostility that ended in the 1874 Civil War In France, and support for the decentralised direct-democracy of the Commune. This was not an affair of the Jacobins’ class origins, “petty bourgeois” that used “plebeian” methods. It was the “attempt to confront bourgeois society in a strictly political manner by the use of the state. (18)

This hardly exhausts the topic. Marx, for Löwy, referred to the achievements of the French Revolution. This had left a template for some types of Marxist politics. Many, have (from Tsarist Russia to ‘Third World’ countries) regarded a democratic revolution as a “stage” on the way to socialist revolution. Acres of documents testify to debates about this, including one by Trotsky accusing Lenin (unfavourably) of Jacobin party methods.

For Löwy there are other important legacies of the Revolution. These include, the “constitution of the oppressed people” as “historical subject”, the time when movements that went beyond the bourgeois limits appeared, and developed ideas of a ‘new world order”. And it was indelibly marked by a “utopian surplus”, the Declaration of Human Rights that continues to illuminate modern politics far beyond the ‘moment’ of Revolution.

The difference between Marx’s politics and the Jacobins is at its clearest on the nature of the “historical subject” of Marxism, then and later, – the working class. Indeed we would be better off not using the term, with its misleading resemblance to an individual and an ‘it’. Movements, organisations and parties, riddled with heterogeneity social and ideological, are the only existence the labour movement has had, then and now. Clubs, factions and cliques exist only within the wider framework of these bodies. The state itself, as Marx recognised through his work on the 1840s Revolutions, and the ‘Bonapartist’ aftermath, had autonomy to these forces, but they articulated class and ideology either inside or outside the formal public realm. Sovereignty – if we relate to critics of Jacobinism – is not he same when we apply it not to an idea of the People, but the parts of the People who take part in these organs. Demands for democracy and universal suffrage, not any form of conspiratorial or ‘club’ politics, played an increasing part in working class politics along with a lot more.

Robin Blackburn observed that a precise analogy between “Rousseau’s vision of the General Will, inaugurated by the Wise Legislator, and Marx’s vision of “proletarian democracy forged in the class struggle” is hard to make. The Jacobin dictatorship is equally far removed from Marx’s call for self-emancipation. We can extend this to question the whole nature of an assumed ‘historical subject’ that fights for Sovereignty. On one version this implies total control over society, n another, it signifies, predominance, and an assertion of collective influence. More recently Blackburn has talked of the political “agent” as “the ‘collective worker’ all those who contributed to social labour” asserting political rights, including through representative institutions. The workers, and their allies (itself a whole topic…) make themselves free from capitalist authority, and begin to create a new mode of production, by all the means that bring the “social” into the political sphere. (19).

Marx consistently backed, if sometimes critically, all campaigns for democracy, including universal suffrage. He saw this as a political form that would enable the working class to develop its capacity to lead society as a whole. Towards his later years he took up the ‘republican’ Abolitionist cause and the Union side in the United States. To no surprise Sperber’s brief and uninformative reference to the American conflict is to indicate that Marx saw the Union army’s campaigns as a model of “revolutionary war.” (Page 351) But this was a clash between two social systems; one based on slavery, the other on ‘free’ wage labour and republican institutions. Violence was supported against a “slave holders’ rebellion”, not as an end in itself, and not to remould the whole of society and establish the power of the revolutionary elite. This reactive policy was the role of political force that stands out in Marx’s writings. It was not an exercise of Virtue, in imitation of the ancient Republics, and the panic-stricken Terror of the Convention, but a means of fighting off the enemies of democracy.

Sperber barely registers such changes. Only for one moment does Sperber pause. In an all too brief account of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) he notes, “”Marx criticised French leftists for seeing 1848 as a rerun of 1789.”(Page 287) Yet his nerve (or cheek) holds. This was another case of Marx attacking his own former beliefs. “He had called for a German republic one and indivisible, for a revolutionary war against Russia, and had glorified and endorsed the radical and terrorist actions of the Jacobins. In this respect, The Eighteenth Brumaire was a particularly drastic example of Marx’s practice of engaging in self-criticism through the criticism of others.” (Page 287)

From Jacobins to Wissenschaft.

It would tire any reader’s patience to extend this detailed analysis across the whole of A Nineteenth Century Life. If Sperber operates within the ‘Jacobin’ framework for Marx’s politics he extends his cover to a host of other aspects of his life and ideas. Some may look into the description of the progress of the political activist who made the transition from émigré circles to a leading position in the First International (1864 – 1873), and the very un-Jacobin politics of the British Trade Unions and the labour movement. Others have already have noted Sperber’s sweeping account of Marx the Theorist, his drift from Hegel and self-perception as a Man of Wissenschaft (a noun apparently made graver by German capitalisation) to a belief in “positivist” (a term never explicated) science. There are those who have unpicked Sperber’s account of Marx’s economics, above all of Capital.

It should be clear that in these areas there is considerable debate that goes beyond “reflection of the major twentieth century conflicts between communists and ther opponents, both totalitarian and democratic.”(P xii) To cite the issue of Marx’s ‘Jacobinism’ is to be reminded that a whole literature exists demanding that this tradition be excised from the French left. That there are those today we discuss the importance of Sovereignty, the General Will, and those who emerged during the Revolution demanding equality. (20) To go into Marx’s relationship with science, or economics, is to enter less directly political, but still fervently fought domains. It would not take much work to discover that disputes are more than “binary” or confined to clashes over “updating” Marx through the kaleidoscope of modern leftist theories.

Relating Marx to the 19th century uncovers pasts (including as we have seen, earlier times) not The Past. As Louis Althusser observed, we can study “different times in history.” and clock-time, chronology, is only one of them(21) What exactly is the historical “time” in which Marx is placed? Sperber begins from origins before the 19th century – the line of events and ideologies that emerged from the French Revolution, particularly the most radical period, up to 1794. Decisive moments in Marx’s biography, the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune, the founding of European socialist parties and trade unions, have their own temporality, related to the spread of democratic ideas and the growth of what Louis Blanc called “organisation”. The process of industrialisation is another “time-line.”

The portrait of the Marx who “personalised political differences” (Page 188) and could turn into a “vehement and hateful enemy” opens up a very particular time dimension. (Page 476) Not many will agree with the Workers Revoltuionary party that Herr Vogt, A Spy in the Workers’ Movement (1860) offers a “model” “exposing the agents of bourgeois reaction” (1982 New Park Edition). It is hard to account for the intensity of the feud with Vogt without some insight into his personality. The violent prejudices on display in his written comments about figures such as Ferdinand Lassalle, indicate yet another psychological temporality. Marx’s obsession with the influence of the Tsar, that led to his co-operatation with David Urquhart, is unlikely, however to have implied that he was “pro-Tory” (Page 522) (22)

A Nineteenth Century Life is in little doubt about to which period Marx’s economic principles, the centrepiece of what became Marxism, belong. They were shaped by the “first half of the nineteenth century”. Like Casaubon in Middlemarch he laboured on, regardless of new developments in research and theory on his Key to all Capitalist Mythologies. Yet as time passed and his scribbling accumulated the Political Economy he offered a critique of had become “outdated and unscientific”. Like the elderly Cleric he had failed to take note of new developments, marginal utility theory, supply and demand curves. But unlike the anti-hero of George Elliot’s novel Marx had found a more faithful Dorothea in Engels, willing to transcribe his piled up material into legible form. The labour movement, “distant and hostile to society” welcomed this “prized possession”.


  1. Preface to the New Edition. Hitler. Ian Kershaw. Allen Lane. 2008.
  2. Page 75. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. D. Riazoniv. Martin Lawrence. 1927.
  3. The Preface to a wide-ranging anthology of their writings, (The Young Hegelians. Edited Lawrence S. Stepelevich. Cambridge University Press. 1983) pleads that they should be considered not as “a link between Hegel and the present, or as simply the matrix in which Marxism was formed, but as an authentic school in its own right.” (Page xi). An initial account of the ‘break’ between early a late Marx is given in On the Young Marx (1960). Louis Althusser. In For Marx. Allen Lane. 1971.
  4. Page 35. Karl Marx. Franz Mehring. Humanities Press. 1966 (1918). Page 37. David McClellan. Karl Marx. Papermac. 1995.
  5. Page 45. Introduction. Lucio Colletti. Karl Marx. Early Writings. Penguin. 1975. Also: From Rousseau to Lenin. Lucio Colletti. NLB. 1972. Marx’s rejection of social contact theory is noted in Colletti’s Marxism and Hegel. Page. 113. Verso. 1979.
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville. Recollections. MacDonald. 1970. Alexis de Tocqueville. Prophet of Democracy. Hugh Brogan. Profile Books. 2006.
  7. Page 22. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat From Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987
  8. Kershaw. Op cit. Chapter Two ‘Drop Out’.
  9. Page 256. In Early Writings. Karl Marx. Penguin. 1975.
  10. Page 23. Tristram Hunt. Introduction. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Penguin. 2009. Also Pages 111 – 114. The Frock-Coated Revolutionary. Tristram Hunt. Penguin.2012.
  11. Pages 145 – 147. Karl Marx. The Poverty of Philosophy Lawrence & Wishart. 1941. Proudhon, whatever the merits of his theoretical writings, had a good ear for working class organisation and politics. His attempt to create a living social alternative, the Banque du Peuple, in 1849, may have failed, but it won 13,000 subscribers, mostly workers. He was, from the start, an implacable opponent of Louis Napoleon. In 1863 Proudhon modified his indifference to political intervention by backing the proletarian Manifeste des soixante supporting a working class candidate in a Second Empire election. But Proudhon was interested in the present capacities for organisation, not the future. Marx had linked his analysis of present class conditions and the germs of organised proletarian politics, to the future. See: Proudhon. Textes et debates. Pierre Ansart. Libraire Génerale Française. 1984.
  12. Tristram Hunt 2012. Op cit. Page 141.
  13. La Décomposition du Marxisme. Georges Sorel. 1908. Sorel did not forget to surround this claim with recognition of Considerant’s ‘pacifist’ ideas.
  14. Introduction. Gareth Stedman Jones. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin. 2002. Jacob Stevens. Exorcising the Manifesto. New Left Review. New Series. No 28. (2004). To give some flavour of this, Jones emphasises the importance of writers and publicists such as the former priest, Abbé Félicité de Lemennais (1782 – 1854) His Paroles d’un croyant (1838) denounced early modern industrial, rural and urban ‘slavery’ and demanded reform through the suffrage. There follows a whole range of other radical thinkers, from Fourier, whose critique of competition was an undoubted influenced, Saint-Simon, and his later followers, the inheritors of Babeuf. Significantly some radicals had engaged in empirical investigation of the “social question” – the impoverished lives of workers. Albert Laponneray, in 1833 denounced, on statistical grounds, the “exclusion” of the proletarians from society. One contribution, neglected even (here) by Jones, was Flora Tristan’s Promanades dans Londres (1840). It described the conditions of the London working class and poor in a way that paralleled Engels. It also recounted her meetings with the Chartist movement, early feminism, and the beginnings of the British trade unions. See Flora Tristan et Karl Marx. Maximilien Rubel. We also note that the “not very accurate” Isaiah Berlin offers a far better guide to these influences. Chapter Five. Isaiah Berlin. Karl Marx. Fourth Edition. Oxford. 1978. After re-reading these accounts one begins to suspect that Sperber is not deeply familiar with the history of the French left. Though he does know the names of Considerant, and Pierre Leroux – the first person to use the word socialism (initially not too favourably).
  15. Page 217. Alfred Rosenberg. Democracy and Socialism. G.Bell & Sons. 1939.
  16. Robespierre. Virtue and Terror. Slavoj Žižek. Verso. 2007. An example of self-indulgent rhetoric that goes even beyond Žižek is Fanaticism. On the Uses of An Idea. Alberto Toscano. Verso. 2010
  17. Jacobinisme et marxisme. Le libéralisme politique en débat. 2006. Jacques Guilhaumou. Ruth Scurr. Fatal Purity. : Robespierre and the French Revolution. Chatto & Windus. 2006.
  18. Page 122. The Poetry of the Past. Marx and the French Revolution. Michael Löwy. New Left Review (Old Series) 177.1989.
  19. Page 4.Marxism: Theory of Proletarian Revolution. Robin Blackburn. New Left Review (Old Series). No 97. 1976. Page 57. An Unfinished Revolution. Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Robin Blackburn. Verso 2011.
  20. La Révolution moderne. Marcel Gauchet. L’avènement de la démocratie. Tome l. Gallimard. 2007 La société des égaux. Pierre Rosenvallon. Editions du Seuil. 2011. See also: Metaphysics of Democracy. Jacob Collins. New Left Review (New Series). No 74. 2012.
  21. Louis Althusser. Du ‘Capital’ à la philosophie de Marx. Particularly, Esquise du concept du temps historique. Lire le Capital. l. Maspero. 1980. This insight, from the Annels school, is transformed by Althuser in relation to the ‘object’ of Capital.
  22. On the left very few can remain long in ignorance that somebody holds a bad opinion of their heroes. Sheila Rowbotham can recall some South Korean trade unionists being shocked at such revelations. No doubt somebody, somewhere, still remains unenlightened. But twenty-five years ago the unravelling of the tale behind Marx’s illegitimate progeniture was popularised by a genuinely humane and rounded biographer, Francis Wheen. Reading a more po-faced writer, Sperber, we might recall Wheen’s summary of Marx’s animating spirit, “Paradox, irony and contradiction” Page 349. Karl Marx. Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate. 1999.

See also Mike Davis Review of Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. Chartist. March/April. 2014.


Written by Andrew Coates

March 14, 2014 at 12:33 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Off topic I know but London Labour are refusing to be drawn on whether or not they employ Bob Pitt. Repeated requests have drawn a blank.


    March 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm

  2. I have not read the book, but when anyone makes claims such as, “Marx had been enthusiastic about the free trade”, I tend to think i am not missing anything.

    Marx actually dealt with this in his lifetime, in response to a similar accusation he said that at some times it made sense for a nation to be protectionist and at others not. Engels said on the topic:

    “Please give me fuller details of Marx’s speech on free trade you refer to. I recall merely that when debate grew slack in the Brussels German Workers Society, Marx and I agreed to stage a sham debate in which he defended free trade and I protective tariffs, and I still see the astounded faces of the people when they saw the two of us suddenly attacking each other. It is possible that this speech was printed in the Deutsche Brusseler Zeitung. I can’t recall any other one.”


    I am also puzzled by the ‘revelation’ of this book, Marx needs to be seen as a product of his time. What human isn’t for gods sake?

    To my mind Marx created a body of work that stands as some of the greatest intellectual insights in history. He was probably one of the first economic historians and ruthlessly put the sword in classical political economy.

    Socialism In One Bedroom

    March 18, 2014 at 6:51 pm

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