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KARL MARX by Jonathan Sperber


A Nineteenth-Century Life

by Jonathan Sperber

Pub Date: March 11th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-87140-467-1
Publisher: Liveright/Norton

A thorough but starchy portrait of the father of modern communism.

Sperber (History/Univ. of Missouri; Europe 1850–1914, 2008, etc.) aims to put Karl Marx (1818-1883) squarely within the context of his time, when the French Revolution was long over and the Industrial Revolution was taking hold. He follows Marx through the watershed events of his life, tracing his restless evolution through Hegel’s systematic philosophy and Ludwig Feuerbach’s atheist humanism, ultimately emerging as the full-tilt revolutionary firebrand and economic diagnostician who believed communism was “the solution to the riddle of history.” He also believed that capitalism was in its death throes, and—unless it sank of its own weight—only violent revolution could put it out of its misery. Sperber credibly reveals Marx’s personal and political passions, ironies and contradictions; he was both Jewish and anti-Semitic, and he was an enemy of the bourgeoisie who lived off the profits of his friend Friedrich Engels’ family cotton mill, which had its own share of exploited workers. For Sperber, Marx’s theories of class struggle and profit were shaped by his lifetime, became hardened with age and began to seem dated not long after his death. Also, under the careful husbandry of Engels, those ideas flowered into Marxism (or as some have suggested, Engelsism), which arguably had only a tenuous connection with its founder. Sperber delivers an objective portrait, but his insights are wrested at exhaustive length and demand enormous patience from readers. His writing is dry and clumsy, and the book is so top-heavy with obtuse theoretical explanations that the life itself often gets lost. After awhile, Marx comes across as a tiresome Teutonic windbag.

Authoritative in its scope, but dense and unnecessarily difficult.