The Real Karl Marx

Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde
Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny, a left-wing journalist and her father’s secretary, in 1869. ‘The cross she is wearing,’ Jonathan Sperber writes, ‘was not a sign of religious affiliation but the symbol of the Polish uprising of 1863.’

In many ways, Jonathan Sperber suggests, Marx was “a backward-looking figure,” whose vision of the future was modeled on conditions quite different from any that prevail today:

The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course and it is time for a new understanding of him as a figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own: the age of the French Revolution, of Hegel’s philosophy, of the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it.

Sperber’s aim is to present Marx as he actually was—a nineteenth-century thinker engaged with the ideas and events of his time. If you see Marx in this way, many of the disputes that raged around his legacy in the past century will seem unprofitable, even irrelevant. Claiming that Marx was in some way “intellectually responsible” for twentieth-century communism will appear thoroughly misguided; but so will the defense of Marx as a radical democrat, since both views “project back onto the nineteenth century controversies of later times.”

Certainly Marx understood crucial features of capitalism; but they were “those of the capitalism that existed in the early decades of the nineteenth century,” rather than the very different capitalism that exists at the start of the twenty-first century. Again, while he looked ahead to a new kind of human society that would come into being after capitalism had collapsed, Marx had no settled conception of what such a society would be like. Turning to him for a vision of our future, for Sperber, is as misconceived as blaming him for our past.

Using as one of his chief sources the newly available edition of the writings of Marx and Engels, commonly known by its German acronym the MEGA, Sperber constructs a picture of Marx’s politics that is instructively different from the one preserved in standard accounts. The positions Marx adopted were rarely dictated by any preexisting theoretical commitments regarding capitalism or communism. More often, they reflected his attitudes toward the ruling European powers and their conflicts, and the intrigues and rivalries in which he was involved as a political activist.

At times Marx’s hostility to Europe’s reactionary regimes led him to bizarre extremes. An ardent opponent of Russian autocracy who campaigned for a revolutionary war against Russia in 1848–1849, he was dismayed by Britain’s indecisive handling of the Crimean War. Denouncing the opposition to the war of leading British radicals, Marx went on to claim that Britain’s faltering foreign policies were due to the fact that the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was a paid agent of the Russian tsar, one…

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