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A look at the life and philosophies of karl marx

Romantic, charismatic, cosmopolitan, and at once able to combine the workers' revolution with protestations of uxoriousness. Such are the personal and intellectual complexities that Jonathan Sperber pursues through 600 pages of tightly argued text in this profoundly important biography of "The Moor".

  • The logical suggestion is that with the final establishment of communism, history comes to a sudden end;
  • That is to say, juridical institutions are part of the superstructure, and ideas of justice are ideological, and the role of both the superstructure and ideology, in the functionalist reading of historical materialism adopted here, is to stabilise the economic structure;
  • This on the face of it seems very reasonable;
  • One is alienated labour, which will be explored shortly;
  • Both sides of our species essence are revealed here:

In contrast to Francis Wheen's raucous account of Marx's life as hack, brigand and rapscallion, Sperber places the history of ideas at the heart of his study.

And it is a refreshingly anti-populist take.

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According to Sperber, not only is Marx's critique of capitalism of very limited applicability to the modern world, it was barely relevant when first published. At every stage of this book there is a new insight into what is usually familiar Marx territory — the complicated relationship with his beloved father Heinrich; the family's tradition of Judaism; the relative poverty of Jenny's family.

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber – review

And, most important, the origins of Marx's lifelong disgust for the "society of orders", the authoritarian and absolutist monarchies of pre-revolutionary Germany peopled with aristocrats, bureaucrats and military officers. What is certainly surprising is a new account of Marx's time in Cologne, when he edited a liberal newspaper.

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Rather than regarding this as an awkward but financially necessary period of sacrifice, Sperber reveals how fulsomely Marx supported the laissez-faire, pluralist politics of the Rhineland bourgeoisie: Sperber's approach to the Manifesto is very much in the Cambridge tradition of political thought. Yet none of these texts provided much materialism for Marx.

This is at the heart of the book: With varying degrees of success, Marx sought to accommodate his initial Hegelian presuppositions to this more scientistic era, beginning with applying the dialectic to Darwinism.

Engels, by contrast, "was always a positivist" and in the aftermath of Marx's death in 1883, "Engels's version of Marx's ideas tended to iron out Marx's own ambivalence about positivism, and to pass over his Hegelian criticism of the conceptual understanding of the natural sciences".

Karl Marx Biography

Its bible, of course, was Das Kapital — although few cadres actually bothered to read it. And Sperber again shows the relative anachronism of Marx's thinking by the 1870s. At its core was not an epic crisis of capitalism there had been too many false dawns for thatbut the question that David Ricardo and Adam Smith had been wrestling with since the late 1700s: Marx tried desperately if vainly to offer an answer, but meanwhile the world was changing around him: It is a compelling and convincing account.

Sperber's understanding of Marx's personality is much deeper than that of other biographers — he was a tortured, bullish, emotional, obviously Anglo-German bourgeois figure.

  • However, the next year he met Friedrich Engels 1820 - 1895 , and began the most important friendship of his life and arguably one of the most important in history;
  • Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life, and which were edited and published posthumously by Engels;
  • For Marx it was a blow from which he never recovered;
  • In our daily lives we take decisions that have unintended consequences, which then combine to create large-scale social forces which may have an utterly unpredicted, and highly damaging, effect.

But the failings of Sperber's approach are also apparent. Yet this risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective.

  • Allen Wood has argued that Marx took this approach because his general theoretical approach excludes any trans-epochal standpoint from which one can comment on the justice of an economic system;
  • According to Marx, it is class struggle the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests that is the means of bringing about changes in a society's mode of production, and that structures each historical period and drives historical change;
  • In London in 1864 Marx helped to found the International Workingmen's Association known as the First International , for which he wrote the inaugural opening address;
  • And, of course, Marx often suggested that communism would be a society of such abundance;
  • Whatever one concludes on the question of whether Marx thought capitalism unjust, it is, nevertheless, obvious that Marx thought that capitalism was not the best way for human beings to live;
  • It was first published on 21 February 1848 as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by Marx and Engels.

In the rest of the world, where capitalism is exhibiting exactly the same kind of energies it did in early-19th-century Britain, the relevance of Marx's critique retains its potency.

Which is why, of course, we remain interested in his life — as brilliantly recounted in this work.