Marx v. The Rest

Richard J. Evans

  • Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
    Norton, 648 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 87140 467 1

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.

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