Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life 
by Jonathan Sperber.
Norton, 648 pp., £25, May 2013, 978 0 87140 467 1
Show More
Show More

Do we need another biography of Marx to go alongside the many we already have? The justification given by Jonathan Sperber is compelling. Previous accounts of Marx’s life have gone one of two ways. Either he is seen as a prophet of modern times, a seer whose theories help us understand the predicament we are in, especially in times of economic crisis, an inspiration to everyone who wishes to see state and society emancipated and transformed. Or, alternatively, he was a misguided and misguiding ideologue whose theories have been responsible for some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. This book aims to scrape away the patina of retrospective polemic to reveal Marx in the context of his own times. Sperber’s career as a social and political historian has centred on the Rhineland in the mid-19th century, but he has also produced wide-ranging and authoritative surveys of modern European history, including a comprehensive study of the 1848 Revolutions. It quickly becomes clear that he is ideally qualified to carry out the task he has set himself.

He begins by emphasising, not Marx’s Jewish background, but the roots of his thought in the Enlightenment. He was born on the western fringes of Germany, in the small, declining provincial town of Trier, which for two decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period had been incorporated into France. The education he was given purveyed many of the central ideas of the Enlightenment, which had also been a source of inspiration for his father, Heinrich Marx, a lawyer who had demonstrated his intellectual boldness in the deeply conservative, Catholic milieu of Trier by converting from Judaism to a rationalistic form of Protestantism.

At Bonn University, where his father sent him to study law, Marx seems to have spent his time drinking and duelling, and his disappointed father dispatched him to Berlin in the hope that he would take his legal studies more seriously there. He became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a family friend. Jenny was not, as some biographers have claimed, his social superior; her father Ludwig von Westphalen had only recently been ennobled, and with a second-rank title. He had no fortune but depended on his salary as a minor bureaucrat, and without the prospect of a dowry, Jenny was not a good match. Scandal was caused only by the fact that, most unusually for a bourgeois marriage in 19th-century Germany, she was four years older than Marx, who was still only 18 at the time of their engagement. Even as a young man, Marx defied convention.

Once in Berlin, Marx, like many of his fellow students, fell under the influence of Hegel, the ‘Prussian state philosopher’ who had occupied a chair at the university until he died in the cholera epidemic of 1831. Heinrich was not amused when his son sent him a long letter informing him that he had ‘chained’ himself ‘to the current world philosophy’. Marx’s father was in the last stages of tuberculosis, and died in May 1838, after which his modest estate was divided up between his widow and surviving children according to the Napoleonic law that held sway in the Rhineland, leaving Marx with next to nothing. Back in Berlin, he fell in with the Young Hegelians, a loose group of intellectuals who, Sperber writes, ‘combined deeply earnest intellectual speculation with a raucous and bohemian lifestyle, in a way that proved very attractive to Marx’. Their attempts to apply the master’s philosophy to theology and Biblical criticism propelled them towards atheism and got them into trouble with the pious new king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who came to the throne in 1840 and turned the government’s educational policy in a more conservative direction. Denied university careers, the Young Hegelian thinkers moved rapidly to the left.

Sperber plays down the influence of Feuerbach, whom Marx never met; although his notes on Feuerbach’s writings were voluminous, the famous 11th thesis (‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world: the point is to change it’) was buried among many others and never published in Marx’s lifetime. More to his taste was Bruno Bauer, a rough and aggressive man who brought him into the Young Hegelian circle. Back in Bonn after completing his studies, Marx followed Bauer in launching a public campaign in favour of atheism. Under the new Prussian regime, this spelled the end of any prospect of an academic career for either of them. Moving to nearby Cologne, Marx became a freelance journalist, writing articles for the recently founded Rhenish News. He won a reputation as a radical journalist, gaining admiration among the Young Hegelians and other left-wing intellectuals, the attention of the local middle-class elite, and the hostility of the Prussian state.

What made his name more widely was an article advocating freedom of the press, enthusiastically welcomed by liberals of all kinds across Prussia. But an article blaming the plight of winegrowing peasants in his native Moselle Valley on the economic policies of the Prussian government aroused the anger of the provincial governor of the Rhineland, and despite protests from the liberal shareholders, the paper was closed down in January 1843. Stymied in Prussia, Marx and his fellow Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge set up a new periodical, the Franco-German Yearbooks, based in Paris, where he now took up residence.

As the periodical’s salaried editor, he was now able to marry Jenny von Westphalen, which he did in June 1843, before the couple moved to France. Sperber points out, in a perceptive analysis of their correspondence, that the couple had already had sexual relations some time before this. By August, Jenny was pregnant; their first daughter was born in May 1844. Disposing briskly of some hoary legends, Sperber surmises that the impecuniousness of Jenny’s widowed mother was most likely responsible for the financial problems they faced already on their honeymoon. To make matters worse, the Yearbooks were a failure, not least because the Prussian authorities confiscated them when they reached the German border. Marx was rescued only by a generous donation from liberal supporters in Cologne.

On his return to Paris, he composed his famous, or notorious, essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, which has led to persistent charges of anti-semitism – ‘charges’, Sperber argues, ‘involving an anachronistic conception of both anti-semitism and Jews’. The tract was a contribution to a current debate on whether adherents of the Jewish faith – Jews – should be granted equal civil rights with Christians, as they had not been in most parts of Germany, reflecting their distinctive position in a traditional social hierarchy where every ‘order’ had its place. The everyday life and behaviour of Jews, Marx admitted, was based on greed and bargaining – and these were the essence of capitalism. Crucially, however, Marx did not use this stereotypical argument, as Bruno Bauer (and still more, the Christian conservatives of his day) did, to argue that the Jews should be denied civil rights. Indeed, he believed that the civil equality of the Jews as a minority religious group was a cause that democrats should fight for. Sperber rightly says that these arguments were a world away from the racial anti-semitism of the 20th century.

Before Paris, Marx had moved in largely bourgeois circles, but now, Sperber notes, ‘he met working-class political activists, and spent time in taverns both with artisans belonging to illegal, secret societies and with members of legal mutual benefit associations.’ In his ‘Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’, Marx argued for the first time that the Young Hegelians’ criticism of religion was not enough. Religion was ‘the opium of the people’, diverting them from the realities of social and political alienation under a German ancien régime that would be overthrown, just as its French counterpart had been in 1789-94. This revolution would be carried out, he said, by the one class that had nothing to lose and so could claim to be universal: the proletariat.

Marx pursued these ideas in his unpublished ‘Paris Manuscripts’, which Sperber sees not as a contrast with the writings of the later, supposedly more dogmatic Marx, but rather as forming a Hegelian continuity with them. His reading of the English political economists made him pessimistic about the economic prospects of the working class. His reading of the French socialists, already begun in Cologne, led him to see the abolition of private property and the establishment of communal and collective forms of work as the way to overcome the alienation of the workers brought about by their employers’ appropriation of the products of their labour.

It was through socialising with radicals in Paris that Marx for the first time came into contact with Friedrich Engels. Born into a revivalist family near the lower Rhine, Engels had read the Young Hegelians and moved sharply to the left. His views were confirmed by his experience working for his father’s business partners in Manchester, where the crass contrasts of wealth and poverty in the new industrial city led him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England and to contribute to the Franco-German Yearbooks. In Paris, he sought out the editor and the two became friends. But the long arm of the Prussian police reached the French capital, and Marx was expelled, spending the next three years, from 1845 to 1848, in Belgium. Joining him in Brussels, Engels took Marx on a visit to England, where he met the members of a secret society of exiled German artisans, the League of the Just, along with Chartists and professional revolutionaries.

Around this time and partly in collaboration with Engels, Marx wrote and published The Holy Family, a polemical critique of the writings of Bruno Bauer, in which he denounced Bauer for his failure to engage with real economic and political issues. A second work from this period, The German Ideology, was not a book at all, but a jumble of manuscript drafts that remained almost entirely unpublished in Marx’s lifetime. Most of them were devoted to a furious attack on the egoist philosopher Max Stirner, a member of Bauer’s circle who had rejected revolution in favour of the transformation of individual consciousness. A third polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy, took on Proudhon for his failure to understand political economy. In all these writings, Sperber argues, Marx was actually engaging in criticism of his own earlier ideas as well as those of others, as he moved from an abstract Hegelianism to the concrete issues raised by political economy.

These polemics reflected in part the fractious mood of the émigré circles in Brussels in which Marx now moved. He quarrelled with revolutionaries like Wilhelm Weitling and Karl Grün, who failed to see the connection between the development of capitalist industry on the one hand and the genesis of communism on the other. ‘Ignorance has never yet helped anyone!’ Marx shouted at a meeting with Weitling, banging the table. Grün said Marx was an unkempt fanatic unable to support his family. Marx said Grün was a fraud and an opportunist whose idea of creating socialism through workers’ co-operatives flew in the face of economic facts.

Economic crisis hit Europe in the late 1840s, and Marx got into money trouble again, especially since his communist politics were finally beginning to alienate his wealthy bourgeois supporters in Cologne. He was brought out of the doldrums by the outbreak of revolutions across Europe in 1847-48. He had already engineered the transformation of the League of the Just into the Communist League, shifting its focus from conspiracy to open propaganda. As the revolutionary atmosphere intensified, he published the League’s statement of aims, drawing on previous drafts by Engels. This was the Communist Manifesto. As Sperber points out, its analysis focused sharply on the 1840s: capitalism was expanding relentlessly, creating an ever growing, ever more exploited working class that would come together to overthrow it: the bourgeoisie, he wrote, ‘produces above all its own gravedigger. Its decline and the victory of the proletariat are both equally inevitable.’

Sperber provides a new translation of the much discussed sentence in the Manifesto, ‘Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft’: ‘All that is solid melts into air’ in the standard English version but rendered by Sperber as ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate.’ What Marx had in mind was not some mystical process of transformation, but the dissolution of hierarchical Prussian society by the steam-power of industry. Political revolution leading to a communist regime, however, would be achieved on the lines of the French Revolution of the late 18th century: power would be seized from the bourgeoisie in a violent upheaval, not as in the relatively peaceful years of 1789-91, but following the example of the Revolution’s Jacobin phase, from 1792 to 1794.

Returning to Cologne in 1848 (he was arrested in Brussels and deported with his family), Marx found the city in uproar, with mass demonstrations and workers storming the City Hall under the direction of the communists, led by the physician Andreas Gottschalk, a man not prepared to brook any rivalry from the returning émigrés. Marx, who despised Gottschalk for his refusal to organise a proper insurrection to inaugurate a republic, left the communists and raised the money to found a newspaper, the New Rhenish News. As both editor and major shareholder, Marx used the paper to polemicise against not only the Prussian government but also the moderate liberal legislatures voted in across Germany after the revolutionaries had forced concessions from the state governments. They were afraid of proclaiming a republic, he charged, and had failed to secure the means to enforce even their more moderate decisions. He was right on both counts, but his polemics had little effect.

The problem for Marx was that his anti-Prussian campaign required the co-operation of left-wing liberals and democrats, while his championing of the class struggle meant turning against them. While Marx vacillated, the workers lost interest in the former campaign and the democrats were alienated by the latter. The Prussian government recovered its nerve, dissolved the Constituent Assembly in Berlin, and sent troops to Cologne to restore order. Marx was arrested and put on trial in February 1849. Basing his defence on the Napoleonic Code, which was operative in the Rhineland but not in the old Prussian provinces, Marx told the jurors that a modern social and political order required defending against the absolutism of the Prussian state. He was acquitted in triumph, but now abandoned the democrats in favour of a renewed commitment to a socialist and working-class revolution.

As Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia made clear his opposition to the constitution voted for by the National Assembly in Frankfurt, a fresh round of insurrections broke out all over Germany. The Prussian authorities closed down the New Rhenish News and expelled Marx, who had renounced his Prussian citizenship some time before. He travelled round the insurgent centres with Engels but, disappointed with their ‘petty-bourgeois’ hesitancy, left for Paris and then London. As reaction and repression triumphed all over Europe, he still retained his confidence in the imminence of a democratic revolution on the Continent, which a revitalised Communist League would have to outbid. His intransigent March Address of 1850 was an implicit denunciation of the policies he had pursued during most of his time in Cologne.

He revived the New Rhenish News with the subtitle ‘Review of Political Economy’, publishing in it his brilliant essay Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850’. This recounted the defeat of the revolutionary forces but predicted a fresh outbreak in which the proletariat would come to power. The periodical was not a success, and soon Marx and his family were living off credit crammed into a single room in Soho. When his two infant children, Heinrich and Franziska, died Marx had to borrow money to pay the undertaker. His marriage was plunged into crisis when the family servant, Lenchen Demuth, gave birth to a son. The boy, named Freddy Demuth, was put out to foster parents but kept in touch with the family and lived on until 1929. It was a not untypical Victorian family drama: the marriage was saved by Engels’s claim of paternity, a claim which he admitted on his deathbed was false and had been made at Marx’s request.

The early 1850s also proved a low point for Marx politically, as the Communist League became mired in ideological quarrels and personal animosities, and its members in Cologne were arrested and subjected to a mass show trial. The star of the trial was the Prussian secret agent Wilhelm Stieber, who presented the court with a cache of documents stolen from the exiles in London (it is a pity that Sperber austerely refuses to use Stieber’s memoirs, which, while dubious in many ways, are also unquestionably entertaining). Marx’s name featured prominently in the trial, prompting him to furnish the defence with evidence that Stieber’s documents were forgeries. Naively forgetting what they had said in the Manifesto – that the law was just an instrument of class interests – Marx and Engels expected this to lead to an acquittal, but the jury found several of the defendants guilty, and Stieber went unpunished.

The exiles meanwhile accused each other of hypocrisy and embezzlement, taking each other to court and resorting to fisticuffs; two of them even fought a duel. Although this dire situation has often been blamed on Marx, he had previously been quite capable of working amicably with his associates, including the democrats of Cologne, and Sperber is more inclined to blame Engels, whose tactless and bullying personality he repeatedly criticises. The situation was made worse by scurrilous rumours spread by German and Austrian police spies, who swarmed around them like flies around a corpse. Marx was too trusting in at least one case, and unsuspectingly supplied a police spy with information, though he was never paid for it. When one of his rivals was unmasked as Stieber’s accomplice, Marx brought about the dissolution of the Communist League.

The revolution, Marx now realised, would be a long time coming. He developed the idea that it could occur only at a time when capitalism was in one of its crises. The final defeat of the revolution in France, marked by the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as president of the Republic (he would soon declare himself Emperor Napoleon III), was the subject of his most inspired pamphlet, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which he denounced the simplistic idea that 1848 was a rerun of 1789. If history repeated itself, he said, it was the ‘first time as tragedy, the second as farce’: ‘The social revolution of the 19th century cannot draw its poetry from the past but from the future.’ Political movements, he said, were related to social classes: socialists and communists to the workers, democrats to the petty bourgeoisie, republicans and monarchists to the capitalist class, conservatives to the large landowners. The analysis was to have a huge influence later on.

The pamphlet did not sell, however, and Marx’s fortunes failed to improve. His daughter Eleanor was born in January1855, but his much loved son Edgar died at the age of eight in April, leaving the family inconsolable. Marx withdrew from politics and devoted himself to forging a new career as a journalist, writing articles for the New York Tribune, commissioned by an American working on the paper who had met him in Cologne. He published 487 articles in all, about a quarter of them ghostwritten by Engels when Marx was ill. They amounted to more, in sheer volume, than the sum total of everything else Marx published in his lifetime, and while many biographers pass over them silently, Sperber does a good job of analysing their content, particularly Marx’s extensive commentaries on the Crimean War. The fiasco of the British conduct of the war convinced him that the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was a paid agent of the Russians, whom Marx had long loathed as ‘the gendarme of Europe’. For him, Palmerston was a classic exemplar of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Whig aristocracy to whom the British bourgeoisie had cravenly abdicated political power – after his own experiences with police spies, Marx was prepared to believe almost anybody was acting as the secret agent of a malign foreign power.

The money he got for his journalism, together with subsidies from the prosperous Engels, enabled his family to rent a house in Kentish Town, in North London, to buy their own furniture for it, and to afford modest luxuries like picnics on Hampstead Heath. Sperber is very good on the family finances, which he shows were by no means as buoyant at this time as many biographers have claimed. Despite their travails, the Marxes remained devoted to each other. Jenny acted as Karl’s secretary and amanuensis, copied his articles into a fair hand, and took a strong interest in his political work. He adored his children – a visitor reported that he ‘played the wildest and most lively games with them’ – and discussed politics with them when they were old enough. ‘Distinctly bourgeois in his private life’, Marx also became, over time, increasingly English in his habits and attitudes. In a thoughtful discussion of his personal sense of identity, Sperber points out that according to 19th-century perceptions, Jewishness was a matter of culture and religion, not race, and by these lights Marx ‘did not seem very Jewish’ either to contemporaries or to himself.

At the end of the 1850s, Europe entered a period of conflict driven by the swelling tide of nationalism in Germany and Italy, which statesmen like Napoleon III, Cavour and Bismarck attempted to channel in directions that would preserve as much as possible of the social and political structures they represented. Marx condemned the French emperor’s support for the Italian nationalists, seeing him as a tool of Russian interests. This aligned him uncomfortably with conservatives trying to defend Austria’s rule in northern Italy, and it was from this stance that he polemicised against the anti-Austrian radical Karl Vogt, accusing him of being a French agent. Vogt responded in kind, accusing Marx of being an Austrian agent, and soon writs were flying about, none of them very successful. Marx’s Herr Vogt is usually ignored as a ‘non-canonical’ work, but Sperber shows that it was more influential and more widely read at the time than the subsequently canonical Eighteenth Brumaire. The charge that Vogt was a client of French imperialist designs on the Rhineland was vindicated when Napoleon III fell in 1870: documents were discovered showing that Vogt had been paid fifty thousand francs by the French government in 1859.

At the time, Vogt won the argument, but the dispute brought Marx new political allies, notably the revolutionary socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, a gifted but dandyish middle-class radical of Jewish origin who began subsidising him from his private resources and finding publishers for his work. But Lassalle had his own ideas and was not prepared to defer to Marx. Like most leftists, Marx and Engels did not entirely trust the flamboyant Lassalle, and they peppered their letters about him with anti-semitic invective, painting him as a vulgar, pushy parvenu, ‘Isidor Berlin Blue Dye’, ‘the little Yid Braun’. Lassalle invited Marx to Berlin, where he threw dinner parties for him and took him to the opera, cheekily finding him a seat next to the royal box. Marx visited old friends in Cologne and family in Trier, where his mother graciously cancelled his debts to her; she died two years later. Back in London, he was visited by Lassalle, who offended the impoverished Marxes by ostentatiously spending his money on hansom cabs and fine cigars, and eating all by himself a small roast Lenchen had intended for the whole family.

By this time, Marx was no longer writing for the Tribune and was again forced to live off borrowed money, mostly provided by Engels. His begging letters put a strain on their relationship, eased only when the inheritance from his mother’s estate came through, together with an unexpected legacy from his friend Wilhelm Wolff. The family moved to a larger house in North London, but Marx fell ill with what medical experts now think was an auto-immune disorder that affected his skin, causing large carbuncles. Nothing could be done, and Marx suffered from the painful and debilitating condition for the rest of his life. In 1869 he finally achieved financial security when Engels assigned him an annual allowance out of an inheritance he received from his father.

None of this stopped Marx from engaging with the newly founded General German Workers’ Association, which the charismatic Lassalle established in the months preceding his death at the hands of a romantic rival in a duel in August 1864. Marx also attracted attention in London when his backing for the Polish nationalist revolt against Russian rule in 1863 led to a public meeting at which the organisers founded a new International Working Men’s Association. With a seat on the committee, Marx was taking an active role in politics for the first time in years. The association wasn’t a tightly-knit conspiratorial group as the League of the Just had been, but a loose confederation of already existing trade unions, mutual benefit societies and educational associations; far from transcending nationalism, it supported it in Poland and elsewhere.

Marx exerted his influence on the International largely from behind the scenes, advocating such reformist aims as a shorter working day and labour actions such as persuading workers of one nationality not to break strikes in another country, in order to expand the movement and create a favourable basis for revolution when the moment came. His assumption that there was no contradiction between revolution and reform would be proved wrong in the years after his death. Sidestepping the pro-Prussian Lassalleans, Marx forged links with the anti-Prussian labour movement founded in Leipzig by his friend Wilhelm Liebknecht. The political situation was thrown into turmoil, however, by Bismarck’s dramatic solution of the problem of German unity, engineering a war against Austria – which was defeated by the Prussian army in a matter of weeks – and using the occasion to create a new North German Confederation, with a parliament elected by universal male suffrage. Most German liberals were won over by this bold stroke. Liebknecht decided to use the new franchise to secure election to parliament, and in 1869 founded the Social Democratic Labour Party, which quickly affiliated with the International, tying it to parliamentarism.

The International faced major problems. The most serious was the growing influence of Bakunin, whose followers took over the International in Spain and Italy. Bakunin’s championing of secret societies was anathema to Marx’s principle of loose labour confederations. The revolution seemed to be receding further into the future, as Marx placed his (unrealistic) hopes in an uprising of the Irish peasantry – not the most socialist of people – against British rule. In 1870, however, Bismarck engineered another war, this time against France; Napoleon III had to be neutralised if the unification of the southern German states with the North German Confederation was to be completed. Bismarck succeeded in portraying the bombastic emperor as the aggressor, and at first Marx applauded him. ‘The French need a thrashing,’ he wrote.

The Prussians’ crushing victory and the replacement of the Second French Empire by the Third Republic caused Marx to change his mind and support the French. As so often, he suspected the Prussians of being tools of the tsar. When a motley crew of radicals took over Paris in a revolutionary commune, Marx hesitated, but his reluctance to support the Communards didn’t prevent the republican government at Versailles from claiming they were acting under his orders. He was accused of being the ‘head of a vast conspiracy’ operating through the International. Elated at his new notoriety, Marx fired off The Civil War in France, attacking Adolphe Thiers, ‘that monstrous gnome’, and hailing the Commune as a new form of state created by working men, ‘the glorious harbinger of a new society’. Marx knew the Communards weren’t socialists, but he seized the opportunity to paint a vivid picture of what a future communist revolution would look like.

The pamphlet, praised by socialists across Europe and featured in newspapers and magazines everywhere, made Marx famous. Yet the Commune’s violent suppression by government troops in 1871 opened up fresh divisions in the International, above all between the followers of Marx and those of Bakunin. The British trade unionists were essentially liberals who favoured forming a political party. Police repression, above all in France, hamstrung many of the affiliated organisations. As the arguments began to fly, Marx outmanoeuvred the Bakuninites both on the General Council and at the 1872 Hague Congress. Armed with a clear majority, he dropped a bombshell: the seat of the council would move to New York. The delegates duly obeyed. Behind this startling move were Marx’s belief that the new era of political reaction and police repression would make the International’s work impossible; his fear that his failing health might again open the way to the Bakuninites; and his desire to clear the decks so he could make progress with his own economic writings.

Up to this point, Sperber tells the story of Marx largely as it was known in his own lifetime. The two chapters about his mature theories are put into a section headed ‘Legacy’. Marx imbibed positivist, scientific influences from, among other sources, On the Origin of Species, which he read in 1860. But he retained his Hegelianism to the end, downplayed though it was by the far more positivistic Engels after his death. Contrary to popular myth, Marx did not offer to dedicate Capital to Darwin; in fact he criticised Darwin for importing into the natural world the structures and habits of England’s capitalist society. In the preface to his short work On the Critique of Political Economy, Marx outlined his theory of stages of social development, sketched the concepts of base and superstructure, and drew distinctions between the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production. All of this was to give his followers endless scope for argument and exegesis over the next hundred years.

Sperber sees Marx’s economic ideas as rooted in a dialogue with his predecessors from Adam Smith to Ricardo, with little of relevance to say about the economy or economic theory of the late 19th or 20th centuries. Capital and its associated manuscripts described the initial phases of industrialism in England, when living and working conditions really were deteriorating. But Marx was already aware that he was dealing with ‘old atrocities from the childhood period of English factories’. The labour aristocracy of British trade unionists whom he met in the International didn’t feature in his analyses. His belief that the rate of capitalist profit was falling was based on the unstable and adventurous early phase of industrial entrepreneurship; it no longer held good in the 1860s. ‘Marx’s vision of capitalism’s future’, as Sperber puts it, was a ‘transcribed version of capitalism’s past’.

Marx’s later economic writings also complicated the Communist Manifesto’s bipolar account of class relations between bourgeoisie and proletariat by devoting considerable attention to landowners and agriculture, and by grappling with Malthus’s dire prediction that population growth would outpace the land’s ability to sustain it. At a time when agriculture in Europe was rapidly decreasing in size and importance, this too belonged to a ‘backward-looking economics’. Marx had little good to say about the service sector, whose expansion would be a central feature of 20th-century economies (‘From the whore to the pope, there is a mass of such scum,’ was one of his more choice remarks). When his economic theories finally aroused public discussion, thanks to Engels’s posthumous publication of his manuscripts, ‘most economists were living in a completely different intellectual world from the one Marx had inhabited.’ The Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk briskly dismissed his labour theory of value by pointing out that prices and values are determined by market forces and consumer preferences, not by labour time.

In his last years, Marx continued to be obsessed by the Russian threat. He met Russian revolutionaries and began to think that Russian society might bypass some of the stages of development he had described in the Manifesto, though he qualified this view more heavily than Lenin and Trotsky later cared to admit. Marx reacted furiously to the programme agreed to by Liebknecht and the Lassalleans in 1875 at Gotha, when they united the two wings of the German labour movement. He condemned its advocacy of state-run co-operatives and its opposition to trade unions in his last major polemic, the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. After Bismarck banned Liebknecht’s party in 1878, the editors of its illegal daily newspaper, based in Zurich, championed a policy of reforming capitalism rather than overthrowing it, and collaborating with the liberal bourgeoisie rather than opposing it. Marx denounced this view too. It would later become known as ‘revisionism’, circumvented by the party leaders through a continuing insistence on the need for class struggle and revolution in theory, while working with existing institutions in practice.

Marx died on 14 March 1883, 15 months after the death of his wife, Jenny. He had just returned from a journey that took him to Algiers, southern France and the Isle of Wight in search of a milder climate that would mitigate the late-onset symptoms of the tuberculosis from which his father suffered. Both in his funeral eulogy and his subsequent writings, most notably the Anti-Dühring, Engels created a positivistic image of Marx as a scientific socialist that was accepted by the mass labour movements which emerged in the 1890s. At the same time, demagogues speaking for the new racial anti-semitism of the later 19th century furiously denounced Marx’s ideas, or more accurately, those of his self-proclaimed followers, as an expression of the Jewish heritage he himself had ignored.

It was Marx’s ‘passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and intransigent nature’ that had ‘the deepest and most resonant appeal, and has generated the sharpest rebukes and opposition, down to the present day’, Sperber writes, while downplaying the legacy of his ideas. He has given us a Marx for the post-Marxist age, a superb 21st-century biography that sets its subject firmly in his 19th-century context but also explains why his legacy continues to be fought over.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013

Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.

Jem Thomas

Vol. 35 No. 12 · 20 June 2013

As a student of Tocqueville who unfortunately knows no German, I am fascinated by the correspondence about Marx’s phrase ‘Alles Ständische’. Jem Thomas’s letter suggests to me that ‘ständisch, Stand’ are exactly what Tocqueville was concerned with in Democracy in America (Letters, 6 June). In his opening sentence Tocqueville says that nothing caught his attention in the United States so much as ‘l’égalité des conditions’. This phrase has given modern readers and translators a lot of trouble, as ‘conditions’ nowadays are almost always taken to be physical – material – economic. I have long preferred to use the word ‘status’ to express Tocqueville’s meaning, and it is clear from Thomas’s letter that this is exactly what Marx had in mind. ‘Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft’ would have given Tocqueville no trouble (he did know German); but he would of course have differed from Marx in not wanting or expecting a proletarian order to ensue. What is most striking to me is that both sages laid so much stress on the same phenomenon – the collapse of the ancien régime. The irreversibility of this calamity may seem self-evident to us, but it was hardly so in Restoration Europe, the Europe of Metternich, Nicholas II and Guizot, which shaped both men. By Thomas’s account, Weber merely deepens and intensifies Tocqueville’s anxious account of the new democratic regime.

All that was solid had indeed melted into air, and we are still struggling with the consequences. I seem to glimpse a new framework of historical interpretation, which will leave the stale orthodoxies of left and right on the scrapheap at last.

Hugh Brogan
University of Essex

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences