Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

By Weinberg, Steve | The Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life


Weinberg, Steve, The Christian Science Monitor


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 intellectualism.

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 different.

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. …

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