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Marx The Misunderstood

27 Apr

Marx and Engels, FriendsTwo 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.

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