For readers who hold certain beliefs about politics and
economics, Karl Marx represents the Devil, because Marxism has
become synonymous with Communism. And Communism, in turn, spawned
the allegedly evil empires of the Soviet Union, Mainland China,
Cuba, and other national governments in their sphere of influence.
To readers who hold opposite beliefs, Marx is something of a hero
not because his ideas spawned contemporary Communist governments,
but because he was a thinker who dared to adopt a rebellious form of
Although Marx, who died in 1883, has not been a physical presence
for a long, long time, he seems very much alive in certain circles
of both scholars and workers.
Hogwash, says Marx biographer Jonathan Sperber, a history
professor at the University of Missouri. Marx formulated his ideas
in a long-ago century under conditions that no longer apply circa
2013. Sure, Marx is worth studying, as are many other men and women
who made a mark while alive. But to believe Marx is responsible for
the shape of the modern world demonstrates a logical flaw, Sperber
states compellingly in the introduction to Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-
Century Life, his hefty, well researched, clearly written biography,
the latest in a large stack of Marx biographies.
All serious biographers know they should avoid judging their
subjects by contemporary values if the subjects are long dead. But
many biographers cannot help themselves, violating the reasonable
tenet because they get carried away with the subjects legacies.
Sperber never falls into that trap. There is a sound reason the
books subtitle stresses a Nineteenth-Century Life and not a Twenty-
First Century Life.
Keeping Marxs life in the 19th century is vital, Sperber says,
because what Marx meant by capitalism in his famous The Communist
Manifesto is different from what we think of as the capitalism of
2013. Nor did Marxs conception of the bourgeoisie equate to todays
group of global capitalists, notes Sperber, who speaks and reads the
German language of his subjects era. One reason Sperber decided to
research a new biography of someone who has been done before is
based in language.
Unfortunately, the common practice of citing Marxs words in
standard translations that do not always do justice to the original
context of his writings has frequently obscured their meanings,"
Sperber writes. He explains he has returned to Marxs original
writings not questionable translations and devised my own, new
translations; some of them will sound familiar, others rather
In addition to placing Marxs political activism in a societal
context he wanted autocratic regimes replaced by working-class
governance Sperber masterfully writes at the micro level, too. …