By Jonathan Sperber
Liveright/Norton Publishers – £25.00/$35.00
Whenever reviewing any biography on Karl Marx, it’s always of paramount importance to remember the high-octane religiosity of the world in which he grew up. I mention this as I’d contest many people often overlook this issue, which to some varying degree, might be understandable. Lest one forget that the trajectory of post-Enlightenment Europe had a most profound, if not quintessential effect and influence on the young Marx, one is capable of missing out.
That’s to say, missing out on many a fundamental point of important validity.
In Karl Marx, an altogether brilliant blueprint of an analytical investigation if ever there was one, Jonathan Sperber (who is the Curators’ Professor of History at the University of Missouri and is author of The European Revolutions, 1848-1851) hits on said point in the very first chapter (‘The Son’): ‘’The idea of Christ’s love liberating mankind from its sinful condition was a classic piece of Christian doctrine, but Marx’s interpretation of it makes clear that he was taught an Enlightenend version of Christianity. One of the burdens of the pre-Christian world that Christ’s love could lift was superstition – a major enemy of Enlightenend thinking […]. While Marx did mention human sinfulness and depravity that could only be redeemed by Christ, he did not dwell on it. Nor did he emphasize the transforming experience of Christ’s redemption, the believer being born again, and experience that Germany’s Pietists found every bit as central to their religion as their American counterparts did.’’
Suffice to say, the depth of the actual analysis of this book, really is quite something. Sperber comes out fighting from both literary opposing corners simultaneously, which in away, he inadvertently expects of the reader. But then we are talking about (my name sake) Karl Marx here; surely the greatest philosopher, sociologist and all round revolutionary socialist that ever was. Some might disagree, while others might argue that as well as these things, he was also an adept economist, historian and journalist.
Naturally, it all needs to be measured with an acute sense balance, not to mention deciphered through an inevitable prism of more than considered understanding.
Moreover, prior to the above quotation, Sperber writes of Marx’s graduation exam for the Abitur (which is believed to be one of his first preserved pieces of writing). It should come as no surprise that religion was the assigned topic, with the heading being: ‘The Union of the Faithful with Christ, According to John, 15:1 – 14.’ The seventeen year old ‘’Marx began his essay by considering the pre-Christian peoples of antiquity, and concluded that in spite of their cultural, artistic, and scientific progress, they could never ‘’throw off the fetters of superstition, develop true and dignified concepts of either themselves or of Divinity,’’ and that even their ethics and morality were never free of ‘’alien admixtures of ignoble limitations […]. Even the greatest sage of antiquity, the divine Plato, speaks in more than one place of a deep yearning for a higher being, whose appearance the unsatisfied aspiration to truth and light fulfils.’’
Could you imagine a seventeen year old today, writing with such informed though and dexterity?
The above quotations are just a tiny hint of what is to come, as the book is simply dripping with informative material throughout. For instance, at the beginning of Part II, Chapter Six (‘The Insurgent’), we hit the European revolutionary years of 1847/8, in which Marx, although still struggling financially (‘’Marx’s attempt to deal with the situation revealed his own embarrassment. From London, he sent a letter asking his Russian acquaintance Pavel Annenkov for a loan of 200 francs to help out his family.’’), he had truly found his niche in life. As if there were any remote possibility that he hadn’t already stumbled upon it whilst still a student!
Said niche is formidably substantiated when Sperber writes: ‘’For a little over a year, from the Spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organise the working class in Cologne and across Germany; and repeatedly encouraging and fomenting insurrection. In all of these activities, Marx persistently promoted the revolutionary strategy he had first envisaged in his essay on the Jewish Question, and would present in scintillating language in the Communist Manifesto.’’
Presented and written in such a way that is both down to earth and analytical, in Karl Marx, Sperber leaves absolutely no stone unturned.
From Marx’s rambunctious university years, his loving marriage to the devoted Jenny von Westphalen (despite an illegitimate child with the family maid of all people…), the aforementioned, rather relentless financial problems, his children’s tragic deaths – the author painstakingly investigates Marx’s historical public actions and theoretical publications against a backdrop of tumultuous European unrest. The latter itself, already being a somewhat convoluted affair; although with Sperber already having written a book on said period of European history, the reader can rest assured of being in more than capable hands.
In time, this may well be referred to as the definitive biography on one of the most towering and influential figures in history.