Karl Marx: activist and improviser

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Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx (Liverlight, £9.91) has received a critical pasting from the revolutionary left. One American journal accused its author of “short-changing” Marx, while among the British Marxists one newspaper criticised Seperber for failing to appreciate the liberating potential of “revolutionary socialist leadership”. A socialist monthly (on whose editorial board I once sat) urged its readers to ignore Sperber without reading him: “There are many bad books on Marx – this one in particular sets out to prove that he was out of date even in the era in which he was working.”

As it happens, there are problems with Sperber’s book, starting with its style which is drier than its material deserves. The author is a serious academic historian and has a talent for finding neglected sources, but the Marx with which he is most comfortable is a writer in the company of his peers. The result is like a history of the Gospels in which the reader is reminded of Jesus’ debt to the millenarian sects of Second Temple Judaism, and it is shown that the ideas that we associate with early Christianity could also be found elsewhere. This indebtedness was also true of Marx but it the combination of ideas although with the skill of their expression that makes Marx better read even now than his contemporaries. Sperber’s organising approach to Marx it to place him firmly in his nineteenth-century setting, which – here I agree with his critics – does reduces him. But if you care about who Marx was and what he stood for, then surely the appropriate response is not just to criticise a biographer’s general approach but also to try to learn from him, as from anyone (whether Sperber, Lars Lih…) who has found documents of which the left has been ignorant.

In that spirit, it is more useful to highlight a few aspects of Marx which Sperber explains better than anyone else I have read.

Marx grew up in a family setting which was receptive to his early ideas. This is a surprising discovery; Marx’s father Heinrich appears in most previous biographies as a champion of absolutist rule, a “Prussian patriot” (Mehring, 1936 edn, pg 2), or a “monarchist” (Wheen, 1999, pg 18) baffled by his son’s politics and fortunate to die on his son’s 20th birthday before the two men ended up in total conflict. But Sperber, who has access to the MEGA (ie the full, German-language version of Marx’s Collected Works, including the letters of Marx’s correspondents) shows that Heinrich had read Voltaire to his son while the latter was at school and written to Karl when he was a student encouraging him to read the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Leibnitz, Locke and Newton. Heinrich’s libraries included a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (Sperber, pg 19). Heinrich, Sperber argues, expressed his lifelong commitment to rationalism by converting not from Judaism to Catholicism (the almost universal choice of his successful Jewish contemporaries) but to Protestantism. In 1834, when his son was 16, he was one of a group of 15 Prussian state officials who – scandalously – celebrated the New Year by getting drunk and singing the Marseillaise and waving a small revolutionary tricolour flag (pg 29). This sounds suspiciously like the Karl Marx of the 1850s with his pubcrawls and drunken discourses to friends on the merits of revolutionary anthems.

When you think that Marx is polemicising against other writers, Sperber insists, he is really (if tacitly) also criticising himself. Hence the assaults in Communist Manifesto on Fourier, Owen, Grun, and the lengthy destruction by the Young Marx of the theories of Proudhon and Feuerbach. Generations of readers trying to find their way in to Marx through his most accessible short books have been baffled by their multiple references to these contemporaries who (from the view of the present) seem even harder and more obscure than Marx himself. If the ideas of these writers are really so puny and ridiculous, a sensitive reader may ask, why does Marx waste so much time on them? Yet all of these writers had been a mentor at one time or another in Marx’s (very lengthy) journey of self-discovery. Repeatedly, Sperber shows, Marx expresses the deepest scorn in relation to views which Marx himself had held just a year or two before. So in The Eighteenth Brumaire, when Marx criticises those who had expected the revolution of 1848 to replay the revolutionary dynamic of 1789, Marx’s bitter rejection of this approach only makes sense if you understand that for much of 1842-1852 Marx had promoted that very revolutionary alliance between socialists and liberals which he was now rejecting.

Between his mid-20s and mid-30s, in the favourable context of the prelude to the 1848 revolution and then during the revolution itself, Marx built for himself a career as a newspaper editor which was surprisingly conventional (when set against the well-known history of Marx’s later penury in London) and – in the same terms – successful. Wheen speeds through this period as quickly as he can, preferring to concentrate on the development of Marx’s ideas and the human of his early marriage. Mehring knew Marx’s success but insisted that it was the unstable product of continuous conflict between Marx himself and the “extremely moderate” Rhineland bourgeoisie (Mehring, pg 35). Sperber takes the revolutionary desires of the Rhenish liberals more seriously. He shows that Marx’s 1842-3 editorship of the Rhineland News was marked by the young writer’s willingness to polemicise on behalf of the historic causes of the German liberals (ie free trade, an elected assembly, an end to censorship by the Prussian bureaucracy), and that his journalism was popular with a moderate, middle-class audience. Under his editorship, the paper’s subscription trebled. On the paper’s closure by the Berlin government, the stockholders petitioned the Prussian Emperor himself asking him to change his mind, and a list of wealthy patrons collected together a total of 1,000 talers as a pension to thank Marx for his efforts for the democratic cause.

Sperber’s Marx is an improviser. Mehring’s Marx was a prophet and philosopher who had emerged from the womb fully-formed and the role of history was to provide no more than a canvas for the inevitable working out of the vision he had already crafted. It is more persuasive to see Marx’s ideas as emerging negatively, as a series of potential plans for political advance, which were then defeated by other factors which Marx then recognised as having greater weight than he had originally envisaged. So, after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx came to the view that the European middle-classes had a greater fear of social revolution (by the workers) which might emerge within political revolution (for democracy) than they had of their old, authoritarian rulers. Accordingly, in any future revolution, it should be expected that they would side with the counter-revolution (as they did indeed in 1871). This was Marx’s consistent analysis thereafter. But it is most clearly not the view that Marx championed before those revolutions had gone down to defeat, and he reached it only because of his great let-down as the revolution was slaughtered.

Finally, Sperber’s Marx is an activist. He formulates plans and then refines them. He takes to the streets; he encounters the hostility of the repressive apparatus of the state, both in Germany and later in exile. He is a political animal trying to shape his immediate present. He is not infinitely wise, he is not principally a writer concerned with the limits of political economy (although he became that writer during the long period of the revolution’s defeat). Sperber’s Marx is in fact the very same person that his best friend Frederick Engels once described in the funeral speech he gave to just a dozen of Marx’s friends: “Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.” To see Marx in these terms is not in the least to dismiss him. Nor, at a time when activism is widespread, should it provide a barrier to championing Marx among a new generation of fighters.

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