Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and revolutionary, whose works such as The Communist Manifesto and Capital inspired the foundation of 20th-century communist regimes and formed the basis of an ideology known as “Marxism.”
Professor of modern European history at the University of Missouri, Jonathan Sperber authored a number of books about the political, social, and religious history of 19th century Europe.
Simply Charly: Your recent biography, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, covers the life and work of one of the most studied and influential political philosophers of all time. What is your reason for adding another book to the already enormous body of literature on Marx?
Jonathan Sperber: There are two major new elements that went into writing this Marx biography. One is the viewpoint. Previous biographers, influenced by the political confrontations of the 20th century, especially the Cold War, tended to view Marx as a contemporary: although living in the 19th century, he saw keenly into the future and was (if you liked him) the penetrating critic of today’s capitalism, or (if you didn’t like him) the evil genius of totalitarianism. My book portrays Marx as a man of a past historical era—the 19th century, which is steadily becoming more distant from today—and more of a backward-looking than a prophetic figure. The second element is a major new source, the Marx-Engels-Gesammtausgabe, or MEGA for short. This total edition on Marx and Engels—with everything they wrote, including notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes, all the correspondence they received and sent out—begun in 1975 and is still underway today. It contains lots of new materials, unavailable to previous biographers.
SC: You’ve stated that many of our current concepts about Marx “suffer from an overdose of contemporaneousness,” and that your biography addresses Marx’s life in the context of his time. Could you elaborate on this? What is lost when we study Marx by the modern standard rather than by the historical?
JS: Historians generally feel that individuals are best understood in the context of their time. Marx, for instance, was a highly polemical author and very often wrote in response to his contemporaries. To understand Marx’s responses, we need to understand what his contemporaries said. Marx lived in a different social, economic, and political world from that of today. His idea of revolution was derived from the French Revolution of 1789—so different from contemporary understandings. Many passages of Marx’s writing are often interpreted as discussions of advertising and consumer capitalism, which did not exist during his lifetime, and so such accounts have to be misinterpretations of what Marx said.
SC: Marx remains a highly controversial figure today, revered by some but reviled by others. During your research, did you encounter any cultural bias from sources? What are some of the more inaccurate perceptions of Marx that you’ve encountered?
JS: I tried to work as much as possible from the original primary sources—records dating from Marx and Engels’s life, where this issue of cultural bias did not come up so much. There are many problematic understandings of Marx out there. Some are just crazy—like the idea that Marx was part of the great conspiracy of the Society of the Illuminati (dissolved in 1784, 34 years before Marx was born) to take over the world. Marx is very often described as a product of Jewish tradition. If I had a nickel for every time someone said or wrote that Marx was a descendant of a long line of rabbis or was a modern version of an Old Testament prophet, I wouldn’t need any book royalties. Marx, in fact, was baptized at the age of 5, had a Protestant religious education, and was quite influenced by liberal Protestant theology. Other common notions, such as that “Marx did not work a day in his life” (a comment I have frequently heard) or that Marx was blithe about his chronic money troubles, involve deep misunderstandings of Marx’s life.
SC: You mention in your book that the capitalism Marx criticized was not the same system we know today. How have capitalism, socialism, and communism evolved in the century and a half since his lifetime? What might Marx make of the global economy today?
JS: In Marx’s day, corporations were unusual and generally restricted to a very few large enterprises. Marx saw them primarily as evidence of the imminence of socialism rather than as a new form of capitalism. He spent a lot of time studying agriculture and writing at length about the economics of ground rent; in today’s economy, agriculture is no longer so central as it was in the 19th century. The service sector is a major part of contemporary capitalism, but it was not when Marx wrote about services in Capital. He found it hard to envision capitalists having rising rates of profit and also increasing wages, something that they have managed to do—at least until the 1970s. Marx was very interested in the idea of a world market and global economic connections, but today’s global market, in which industrial production is scattered around the world and streams of finance move instantaneously from country to country, are way beyond Marx’s wildest dreams. His own ideas about a socialist and communist future were based on the experience of the French Revolution of 1789 and speculations emerging from his studies of political economy and of Hegelian philosophy. The actual 20th century socialist and communist regimes of the former Soviet bloc, with their efforts at high-speed industrial development, usually accomplished by mass impoverishment and sometimes millions of deaths, were very far from Marx’s speculations.
SC: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life addresses not only the historical context surrounding Marx’s philosophy, but also the personal. You examine his marriage, upbringing, and financial difficulties. How do these aspects of Marx’s personal life inform his writings? Why is it essential to study them to examine his work?
JS: Speaking once again as a historian, I would say that personal circumstances are important for understanding any individual’s ideas. Marx, for instance, developed his notions of capitalist economic crises leading directly to a communist revolution at a time when he was politically isolated and saw few opportunities for revolutionary action. More generally, I would say that ideas emerge out of a complex matrix of past intellectual traditions, personal circumstances, and social pressures. In my Marx biography, I have tried to show how this led to Marx’s major theoretical, economic and political concepts.
SC: The German philosopher Georg Hegel is frequently cited as a major influence on Marx though many have accused Marx of misinterpreting Hegel’s ideas. What is your take on this? How did Hegel influence the development of Marxism?
JS: Marx became acquainted with Hegel’s ideas when he enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1837, and they remained enormously influential on him for the rest of his life. Hegel himself was dead (carried away by the cholera epidemic in 1831) by the time Marx enrolled, so that Marx learned about Hegel’s ideas through his followers, especially the “Young Hegelians,” a group of philosophers and theologians who brought out the politically, religiously, and intellectually radical implications of Hegel’s thought—something the master himself had carefully avoided doing. Marx followed the lead of the Young Hegelians, which helped turn him into a radical. But he went in a different direction by taking certain Hegelian concepts, such as “alienation,” and applying them to economics, using these concepts to reinterpret the teachings of economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This remained an important part of Marx’s economic thought; Capital, his great economics treatise, shows strong Hegelian influences. After about 1850, the influence of Hegel and of his idea that philosophy was the key scholarly discipline, began to wane, and the intellectual model of the natural sciences became ever more important—a development contemporaries sometimes called “positivism.” Marx himself was torn between his long-held Hegelian ideas and the new positivist understandings of knowledge; he was never able to commit fully to one or the other.
SC: Besides Hegel, what other philosophers, writers, and economists would you say had a significant impact on Marx? How did Marx’s exposure to foreign culture through his years of living in Paris, Brussels and London shape his philosophy?
JS: I would mention four people in particular. (1) Bruno Bauer, one of the leaders of the “Young Hegelians,” who introduced Marx to the radical interpretation of Hegel’s ideas. (2) Moses Hess, an eccentric political activist and philosophical theorist (he was sort of a Young Hegelian, but rejected the Young Hegelians’ atheism), who introduced Marx to communist doctrines and to the idea of applying Hegel’s concepts to economics. (3) David Ricardo, Adam Smith’s most important disciple. Today, Ricardo is known (to the extent that he is) as the formulator of the theory of “comparative advantage,” applying Smith’s conception of the division of labor to international trade. To his contemporaries, however, he was a towering figure. Marx called Ricardo, “the greatest economist of the nineteenth century,” and his basic ideas about economics came from Ricardo, or from a “Hegelianized” version of Ricardo. (4) Charles Darwin, who was enormously influential on any thinker who lived to read his On the Origin of Species. As for Marx’s exposure to foreign culture, he was an unusually cosmopolitan figure, with an interest in acquiring foreign languages. He incorporated cultural and intellectual concepts from other countries into his basic world-view, which was shaped by his formative experiences in Germany.
SC: The name “Karl Marx” is instantly recognizable to anyone with even a basic grasp of European history and philosophy, but his contemporary, Friedrich Engels, with whom he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto, is lesser known. How did the two men develop into, as you call it, “the Damon and Pythias of communism?” Why did Marx’s daughters destroy some of their father’s correspondence with Engels after his death?
JS: Marx and Engels hit it off right away, after their first meeting, but the initial years of their relationship were sometimes rocky, with quarrels and disputes. Both men were linked politically to other figures. It was only following their move to England in 1849, in political exile, after the suppression of the revolution of 1848-49, that they became a tightly-knit personal and political duo. In fact, it was in 1850 that people began talking about “Marx and Engels” as a political team. They had a well-known division of labor—Marx was the theorist and political activist, while Engels worked for his father’s business partners and helped to fund Marx and his family, in addition to offering him advice and intellectual support. The two became very close friends, a point which they usually downplayed, in typical laconic male fashion. But on the publication of Capital, Marx was fulsome in praise of his friend. The one downside to this close friendship was that Marx and Engels cemented their connection by constantly putting down other communists and political radicals, which tended to isolate them politically. As for the correspondence destroyed on Marx’s death by his daughters, it was mostly letters that Marx and his wife Jenny von Westphalen wrote to each other. There is some reason to believe (although this is largely speculative) that the letters included critical remarks about Engels. Mindful of the relationship between the two men, as well as Engels’s role as their father’s literary executor, the daughters preferred to suppress these comments.
SC: Marx’s 1849 exile in London lasted until his death and landed him square in the middle of what you refer to as “exile politics.” During this period, the Marx family suffered from crippling financial difficulty that left his wife Jenny begging for funds from family friends. Psychologically, how did Marx endure this bitter period of his life? Did his dream of an upcoming communist revolution have, at that time, any basis in reality?
JS: The initial years of Marx’s exile, from about 1849 to 1855, were extremely difficult. Politically isolated, in debt and broke, Marx also suffered personal tragedies, including the death of three of his children—most awfully, that of his 8-year-old son Edgar, probably from a ruptured appendix. As friends and acquaintances noted, Marx was very depressed and had to struggle very hard just to go on. His friendship with Engels and the latter’s financial support were very helpful. Marx believed that a new economic crisis would lead to another revolution, which was important for his ability to continue politically, although, as Wilhelm Liebknecht recounted in his memoirs, Marx’s expectations of a forthcoming economic crisis became a standing joke among his circle of acquaintances. The family’s financial difficulties, if not ending, became somewhat less severe when Marx found a well-paying position as the European correspondent for the New York Tribune, then the world’s largest newspaper. The long-awaited economic crisis did finally break out in 1857—today, seen as the first worldwide recession—and although it did not lead to any revolutions, communist or otherwise, it encouraged and energized Marx. The long period of post-revolutionary repression and reactionary politics came to an end in 1858-59, and this offered Marx a whole series of new political opportunities that he tried to exploit. The last 25 years of his life, from 1858 to 1883, were vigorous in political and intellectual activity, at least until Marx’s health gave way, as it did in the 1870s.
SC: You note near the end of your biography that the campaigns of many supposedly pro-Marxist 20th century regimes were “reminiscent of nothing in Marx’s own writings so much as his descriptions of the brutal British modernization of colonial India or his account, in Capital, of the cruel, early phase of capitalist primal accumulation.” How is it that so many of those who sought to emulate Marxist philosophy instead came to resemble that which he hated most? What might Marx have made of the USSR or the communist government of China?
JS: I get asked that latter question a lot, among others, by Jon Stewart, when I was a guest on The Daily Show. Most people who pose the question seem to be hoping for a definitive answer—either Marx was responsible for the totalitarian dictatorships in the USSR and China, or his ideas about socialism had nothing to do with those countries, and so are untouched by their unhappy histories. As is typical for historians, I do not have a definitive answer to those questions, but I can give an indirect one.
In 1858, Marx wrote a letter to Engels, one that past biographers have generally ignored. Very excited by the 1857 recession, he suggested that revolutions were imminent in Europe, and would quickly lead to the creation of communist regimes. But, he continued, on a global scale, capitalism was still growing and flourishing, as could be seen by the gold rushes in California and Australia, and the opening up of Asian countries, such as China and Japan, to trade with England and the United States. Could communist regimes survive in such an environment of expanding global capitalism, Marx wondered? As it happened, the recession came to an end, economic growth resumed, there were no revolutions, and Marx soon turned his attention to other political issues, particularly the national unification of the German states.
But the question Marx posed in 1858—could communist countries survive in a world dominated by an Anglo-American global capitalism—was one that 20th-century communist regimes in the USSR, China, Cuba and elsewhere have had to answer. Stalin and Mao both believed that their communist regimes could only survive if they quickly became modern, industrialized, high-tech economies. Their efforts to do so resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people, in the Great Famine of the USSR during the early 1930s and the Great Leap Forward in China during the late 1950s. Marx did envision the initial stage of communist regimes as a revolutionary dictatorship, although more modeled on the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror during the French Revolution than on Stalin and Mao’s mass murders in the name of economic development. Less extreme efforts, such as the USSR in the 1970s and early 1980s under Leonid Brezhnev produced, as Russians said, the “period of stagnation,” of slow, gradual and seemingly unavoidable economic decline.
So I would say that history has answered the question Marx posed in 1858, and the answer is “no.” The former communist regimes have either openly given up their communism, as has been the case in Eastern Europe, or have become capitalist, while pretending still to be communist, as in China and Vietnam. There remain a few holdouts, like North Korea and Cuba, but even the latter is gradually moving in a capitalist direction.