Two aspects of Karl Marx’s life and writings continue to impress me. His friend was Friedrich Engels, who never abandoned this odd and trying genius who never seemed to be solvent. And, for the founder of an -ism, his books are stuffed with facts. Jonathan Sperber, in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, is out to emphasize other aspects of Marx’s life.
Thus, there is no lack of serious and reliable Marx biographies, including relatively recent ones. Sperber’s entry is a worthy addition to the collection. He is to be commended particularly for his warning against the faddish tendency of modern scholars to make Marx’s ideas more relevant to the present by putting them through a Cuisinart along with various bromides of our time such as structuralism, postmodernism, existentialism and the like.
But Sperber’s nineteenth-century focus raises some interesting questions of its own. Marx’s historical importance, it could be argued, is mainly as the man who gave Lenin his ideas, not the polemicist who wrote a book attacking the theories of, for example, Carl Vogt, whose views are almost entirely in eclipse today. Sperber certainly is justified in dismissing various attempts to update Marx, which have ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd. At the same time, he may go too far in dismissing as useless the preoccupation with Marxism, which he calls “Marxology.” After all, Marx’s private life and his interventions in the politics of his time, interesting as they are, aren’t why he is remembered today.
He is remembered—for better or worse—as the man who provided an outline, even if somewhat vague, for a postcapitalist world. Thus, the author of the draft of the future society is remembered primarily by those who lived to witness it. That is probably why Moscow authorities have seriously considered removing from the capital the last remaining statue of Marx (it stands opposite the Bolshoi Theatre). Interest in Marx and Marxism seems to be least robust today in the very countries in which his teachings were once invoked and where schoolchildren were instructed to study him.
But is it fair to blame philosophers for any and every mutilation of their ideas—the concept that a tree is known by its fruits? Francis Wheen, for one, argues that it is not. And it would indeed be wrong to blame Marx for Stalin or Pol Pot, just as Nietzsche cannot be made responsible for Hitler or Eichmann. Still, a lot of civic activity unfolded in the twentieth century in Marx’s name, much of it tragic. And his attack on capitalism, so powerful and sweeping, was destined to find resonance through the decades whenever the faults and limitations of capitalism became most visible and pronounced.
Which brings us back to the so-called Marx renaissance and how it happened that he should be enjoying renewed interest, however muted, after so much controversy over so long a time. Some knowledge of Marx’s writing was taken for granted in my generation, between the two world wars. This was not true with regard to the generation of the parents and certainly not the grandparents. But when I was growing up a third of the world was ruled under systems that were, or claimed to be, guided by Marxism. How could people in such a time make sense of current events unless one knew something about the ideology that was the lodestar of these countries?
Knowing Marx the man of his times seems an easier task than tackling an international political movement.