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The Real Karl Marx

As the late Leszek Kołakowski used to put it in conversation, “Marx was a German philosopher.” Marx’s interpretation of history derived not from science but from Hegel’s metaphysical account of the unfolding of spirit (Geist) in the world. Asserting the material basis of the realm of ideas, Marx famously turned Hegel’s philosophy on its head; but in the course of this reversal Hegel’s belief that history is essentially a process of rational evolution reappeared as Marx’s conception of a succession of progressive revolutionary transformations. This process might not be strictly inevitable; relapse into barbarism was a permanent possibility. But the full development of human powers was still for Marx the end point of history. What Marx and so many others wanted from the theory of evolution was an underpinning for their belief in progress toward a better world; but Darwin’s achievement was in showing how evolution operated without reference to any direction or end state. Refusing to accept Darwin’s discovery, Marx turned instead to Trémaux’s far-fetched and now deservedly forgotten theories.

Situating Marx fully in the nineteenth century for the first time, Sperber’s new life is likely to be definitive for many years to come. Written in prose that is lucid and graceful, the book is packed with biographical insights and memorable vignettes, skillfully woven together with a convincing picture of nineteenth-century Europe and probing commentary on Marx’s ideas. Marx’s relations with his parents and his Jewish heritage, his student years, his seven-year courtship and marriage to the daughter of a not very successful Prussian government official, and the long life of genteel poverty and bohemian disorder that ensued are vividly portrayed.

Sperber describes Marx’s several careers—in which, Sperber comments, he had more success as a radical journalist who founded a newspaper than in his efforts at organizing the working class—and he carefully analyzes his shifting intellectual and political attitudes. There can be no doubt that Sperber succeeds in presenting Marx as a complex and changeable figure immersed in a world far removed from our own. Whether this means that Marx’s thought is altogether irrelevant to the conflicts and controversies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is another matter.

Neither the claim that Marx’s ideas were partly responsible for the crimes of communism nor the belief that Marx grasped aspects of capitalism that continue to be important today can be dismissed as easily as Sperber would like. Marx may have never intended anything resembling the totalitarian state that was created in the Soviet Union—indeed such a state might well have been literally inconceivable for him. Even so, the regime that emerged in Soviet Russia was a result of attempting to realize a recognizably Marxian vision. Marx did not hold to any single understanding of the new society he expected to emerge from the ruins of capitalism. As Sperber notes, “Late in his life, Marx replaced one utopian vision of the total abolition of alienated, divided labor with another, that of a humanity devoted to artistic and scholarly pursuits.” Yet Marx did believe that a different and incomparably better world could come into being once capitalism had been destroyed, basing his belief in the possibility of such a world on an incoherent mishmash of idealist philosophy, dubious evolutionary speculation, and a positivistic view of history.

Lenin followed in Marx’s footsteps in producing a new version of this faith. There is no reason to withdraw the claim, advanced by Kołakowski and others, that the deadly mix of metaphysical certainty and pseudoscience that Lenin imbibed from Marx had a vital part in producing Communist totalitarianism. Pursuing an unrealizable vision of a harmonious future after capitalism had collapsed, Marx’s Leninist followers created a repressive and inhuman society that itself collapsed, whereas capitalism—despite all its problems—continues to expand.

While Marx cannot escape being implicated in some of the last century’s worst crimes, it is also true that he illuminates some of our current dilemmas. Sperber finds nothing remarkable in the celebrated passage in the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels declared:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The idea that this “assertion of ceaseless, kaleidoscopic change” anticipates the condition of late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century capitalism, Sperber suggests, comes from a mistranslation of the original German, which could be more accurately rendered as:

Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is deconsecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.

But while Sperber’s version is decidedly less elegant (as he admits), I can see no real difference in meaning between the two. However translated, the passage points to a central feature of capitalism—its inherent tendency to revolutionize society—that most economists and politicians of Marx’s time and later ignored or seriously underestimated.

The programs of “free market conservatives,” who aim to dismantle regulatory restraints on the workings of market forces while conserving or restoring traditional patterns of family life and social order, depend on the assumption that the impact of the market can be confined to the economy. Observing that free markets destroy and create forms of social life as they make and unmake products and industries, Marx showed that this assumption is badly mistaken. Contrary to what he expected, nationalism and religion have not faded away and there is no sign of their doing so in the foreseeable future; but when he perceived how capitalism was undermining bourgeois life, he grasped a vital truth.

This is not to say that Marx can offer any way out of our present economic difficulties. There is far more insight into the tendency of capitalism to suffer recurrent crises in the writings of John Maynard Keynes or a critical disciple of Keynes such as Hyman Minsky than in anything that Marx wrote. In its distance from any existing or realistically imaginable condition of society, “the communist idea” that has been resurrected by thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek is on a par with fantasies of the free market that have been revived on the right. The ideology promoted by the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek and his followers, in which capitalism is the winner in a competition for survival among economic systems, has much in common with the ersatz version of evolution propagated by Herbert Spencer more than a century ago. Reciting long-exploded fallacies, these neo-Marxian and neoliberal theories serve only to illustrate the persisting power of ideas that promise a magical deliverance from human conflict.

The renewed popularity of Marx is an accident of history. If World War I had not occurred and caused the collapse of tsarism, if the Whites had prevailed in the Russian Civil War as Lenin at times feared they would and the Bolshevik leader had not been able to seize and retain his hold on power, or if any one of innumerable events had not happened as they did, Marx would now be a name most educated people struggled to remember. As it is we are left with Marx’s errors and confusions. Marx understood the anarchic vitality of capitalism earlier and better than probably anyone else. But the vision of the future he imbibed from positivism, and shared with the other Victorian prophet he faces in Highgate Cemetery, in which industrial societies stand on the brink of a scientific civilization in which the religions and conflicts of the past will fade way, is rationally groundless—a myth that, like the idea that Marx wanted to dedicate his major work to Darwin, has been exploded many times but seems to be ineradicable.

No doubt the belief that humankind is evolving toward a more harmonious condition affords comfort to many; but we would be better prepared to deal with our conflicts if we could put Marx’s view of history behind us, along with his nineteenth-century faith in the possibility of a society different from any that has ever existed.

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