Jonathan Sperber - Karl Marx. A Nineteenth-Century Life-Liveright (2013).pdf

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Unformatted text preview: Karl Marx A NINETEENTH-CENTURY LIFE JONATHAN SPERBER Dedication This book is dedicated to the memory of my father LOUIS SPERBER Contents Cover Title Page Dedication INTRODUCTION PART I: SHAPING 1. The Son 2. The Student 3. The Editor 4. The Émigré 5. The Revolutionary PART II: STRUGGLE 6. The Insurgent 7. The Exile 8. The Observer 9. The Activist PART III: LEGACY 10. The Theorist 11. The Economist 12. The Private Man 13. The Veteran 14. The Icon ACKNOWLEDGMENTS SOURCE COLLECTIONS NOTES BIBLIOGRAPHY INDEX About the Author Picture Section Copyright Also by Jonathan Sperber Introduction EARLY IN THE WINTER of 1848 in the Belgian capital of Brussels, a man, short but broad-shouldered, still youthful-looking, his dark hair and beard nonetheless showing the first streaks of gray, sat at a desk in a poorly furnished apartment. He was writing, as he usually did, in fits and starts. For a while his pen moved across the paper, in a barely legible left-handed scrawl, then he would break off, stand up and pace around his desk, before returning, crossing out parts of what he had written, and starting again. His family members—a wife a few years older than he was, two small daughters, and an infant son, along with a single servant, her presence testifying to the gap between her employers’ social expectations and their financial circumstances—left him alone in his labors. They knew that the piece was overdue for delivery to the publishers, a chronic problem for his literary work. The man and father was Karl Marx, and his writing, past its deadline to be sent to the Central Authority of the Communist League in London, was the League’s new political statement, its Communist Manifesto. For so many historians and biographers, this Manifesto and the life of intellectual inquiry and political struggle to which it was connected was that of a modern contemporary, a nineteenth-century figure who had looked deeply into the future and helped to shape that future, whether for good or for ill. This understanding of Marx as a controversial contemporary appears in one of the very first biographies of him, published in 1936 but still well worth reading. It is rarely cited, for its title is embarrassing to current sensibilities: Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto MaenchenHelfen’s Karl Marx: Man and Fighter: Strife has raged about Karl Marx for decades, and never has it been so embittered as at the present day. He has impressed his image on the time as no other man has done. To some he is a fiend, the arch-enemy of human civilization, and the prince of chaos, while to others he is a far-seeing and beloved leader, guiding the human race towards a brighter future. In Russia his teachings are the official doctrines of the state, while Fascist countries wish them exterminated. In the areas under the sway of the Chinese Soviets Marx’s portraits appears upon the bank-notes, while in Germany they have burned his books.1 Viewed positively, Marx is a far-seeing prophet of social and economic developments and an advocate of the emancipatory transformation of state and society. From a negative viewpoint, Marx is one of those most responsible for the pernicious and evil features of the modern world. As the passage from Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen’s book suggests, these strongly polarized opinions about Marx were a reflection of the major twentiethcentury conflicts between communist regimes and their opponents, both totalitarian and democratic. Yet even after the end of most communist regimes in 1989, this view of Marx as our contemporary has remained. In 1998, at the time of the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, there were frequent references to Marx as someone who had predicted the consumerist future; the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm suggested that Marx and Engel’s 1848 treatise had foreseen the age of globalized capitalism. One might expect Hobsbawm, himself a Marxist, to assert the continued validity of the ideas he espoused over the course of his long lifetime. Yet in the global economic crisis of the fall of 2008, the headline in The Times of London, a newspaper above any suspicions of communist sympathies, screamed: “He’s back!” France’s right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was photographed thumbing through Capital. Apparently Marx’s status as a contemporary is very long lasting.2 Here it seems appropriate to ask how a mortal human being, and not a wizard— Karl Marx, and not Gandalf the Grey—could successfully look 150 or 160 years into the future. A closer examination of the Communist Manifesto itself, with its vision of a recurrence of the French Revolution of 1789, its reiteration of the theories of early nineteenth-century political economists, its veiled references both to the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel and to the new anti-Hegelian ideas of positivist scholarship, its many insider references to Marx’s own past and to what are today obscure features of the European politics of the 1840s, suggests something quite different. 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. It might even be that Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends. Such are the premises underlying this biography. Complementing these new premises is a remarkable fresh source for Marx’s life and thought, the complete edition of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, generally known by its German acronym as the MEGA. This enormous project began in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. Its very energetic first editor, David Rjazanov, was arrested in one of Stalin’s great purges and later shot, bringing the first phase of the project to an end. Work resumed in 1975, sponsored by the Institutes of Marxism-Leninism in East Berlin and Moscow. After 1989 and the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the project has continued, housed in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and directed by the International Marx-Engels Foundation. The edition’s finances come from the government of a united Germany, initially thanks to the project’s endorsement by the conservative architect of German unification Chancellor Helmut Kohl, himself by training a historian. This very large scale scholarly undertaking, still ongoing today, aims to publish everything Marx and Engels ever wrote, including the notes they scribbled on the backs of envelopes. Unlike less complete editions of the two men’s works, it does not just print the letters Marx and Engels themselves composed, but the letters addressed to them as well. This new source contains no smoking gun, no single document that completely alters existing understandings of Marx; but it does bring to light hundreds of small details that subtly change our picture of him.3 The MEGA was originally part of a broader Cold War publishing competition that pitted the communist heirs of Marx’s ideas in East Berlin and Moscow against his social democratic ones at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bad Godesberg, and the Karl Marx House in Trier. Unlike most Cold War competitions, this one had useful results, including a flood of source publications, narrowly focused monographs, and highly detailed scholarly articles providing a mass of information about Marx’s life and times—often printed in obscure venues and little used or not at all in previous biographies. Alongside this new information about Marx’s life have been historians’ initiatives to rethink Marx’s times. Usually below the radar screen of the general public, these specialized works have been reconceptualizing and rethinking the nineteenth century, and doing so in ways that are eminently relevant to an understanding of Marx. Recent historical scholarship has downplayed the extent and significance of the industrial revolution, observing that conflicts between social classes have been just one feature shaping political confrontations in general and the socialist and labor movements in particular, pointing out the longlasting and continuing influence of ideas and forms of political action from the French Revolution of 1789, the key role that religion played in interpreting the world, the considerable if complex and convoluted effect of nationalism, and the significance of family life and relations between men and women for the organization of society. The upshot of all these investigations has been to delineate an era rather different from our own. Putting Marx into that era means remembering that what Marx meant by “capitalism” was not the contemporary version of it, that the bourgeoisie Marx critically dissected was not today’s class of global capitalists, that Marx’s understanding of science and scholarship, contained in the German word Wissenschaft, had connotations different from contemporary usage. Unfortunately, the common practice of citing Marx’s words in standard translations that do not always do justice to the original context of his writings has frequently obscured their meanings. In this book, I have consistently gone back to the original versions of Marx’s writings and devised my own, new translations: some of them will sound familiar, others rather different. All too often, works about Marx focus on his ideas, his philosophical, historical, and economic theories. This biography will certainly have a lot to say about Marx’s theories, but it will describe them in their own contemporary context, as interventions in ongoing debates and as critical comments on—and Marx was always very proud of his role as a critic—thinkers of the time. Some of those thinkers, such as Charles Darwin, are well known today; others, like Bruno Bauer or Moses Hess, are more obscure. Such an exposition of Marx’s ideas in its contemporary context will include a consideration of the canonical Marxist texts —the Communist Manifesto, The Eighteenth Brumaire, and Capital, for instance —but also the stranger writings, often passed over or dismissed as personal idiosyncrasies, such as Herr Vogt or The Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century. Interesting in their own right, these lesser-known works also cast a new light on the classic Marxist texts. To understand Marx’s ideas, it is not enough to know their intellectual context; it is also necessary to see them in the broader framework of his life. This biography will discuss, in some detail, his private life: his family, education, and upbringing, his courtship and marriage to Jenny von Westphalen, his relations with his children, his friendships and his enmities, his chronic financial problems. It will describe Marx as a public figure: his extensive work as a journalist—all too often ignored or not given its due—his political activities during and after the Revolution of 1848–49, and his role in creating and destroying the International Working Men’s Association, the so-called First International. The portrait of Marx will be found at the interaction of his private life, public actions, and intellectual formulations. As with Marx’s theories, this book will place his private life and political actions in their nineteenth-century context. As such, it will be a portrait, not just of Marx but of the many people surrounding him. Two of these individuals are obvious choices: Marx’s loyal friend, political associate, intellectual collaborator, and chief disciple, Friedrich Engels, and his wife and lifelong love, Jenny von Westphalen. Others are less well known but have an intriguing story to tell. There are family members: Marx’s parents Heinrich and Henriette Marx, and his daughters Jenny, Laura, and Eleanor. His communist colleagues and rivals are another fascinating group—the dreamy Moses Hess and the flamboyant Ferdinand Lassalle. August Willich was a Prussian army officer turned Spartan communist, with strange sexual proclivities; Wilhelm Liebknecht a loyal follower, who secretly and stubbornly had a mind of his own. Marx’s rivals and allies included non- or even anti-communists, such as the democratic and nationalist revolutionaries of 1848, Giuseppe Mazzini, Gottfried Kinkel, and Lajos Kossuth, or the eccentric, pro-Islamic and anti-Russian British politician David Urquhart. Most of these people were, one might say, part of the underground of the nineteenth century: dissidents, insurgents, nonconformists, outside the circles of privilege, influence, and power. Their world was Marx’s as well. But Marx’s life also intersected with figures of greater power and renown. Moving through these pages will be the British prime minister Lord Palmerston, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the French emperor Napoleon III, and the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, all men whose policies and actions profoundly affected Marx’s life, and about whom he had his own acerbic opinions. Prominent figures of science and scholarship also shaped his story: Adam Smith’s most important follower, the economist David Ricardo, and the towering scientific genius of the century, Charles Darwin. In looking for models of a biography placing a complex individual in the context of his or her time, I have found previous lives of Marx less useful. Two marvelous works on important figures of central European history—both very different from Marx and living in very different historical periods—have offered some helpful ideas: Heiko Obermann’s life of Martin Luther, which perceives the architect of the Reformation more as a late-medieval than a modern figure, and Ian Kershaw’s celebrated biography of Adolf Hitler, situating the Nazi dictator squarely within the twentieth century age of total war. When it comes to the nineteenth century, two excellent studies of German academics (neither, unfortunately, translated into English) emphasize the interplay between personal, professional, political, and private life: Constantin Goschler’s biography of the great physiologist and political activist Rudolf Virchow; and Friedrich Lenger’s engaging life of the sociologist and economist Werner Sombart. The approaches of these biographers to their subjects are quite suggestive for a life of Marx, who was, of course, not an academic, although at one point in his life he had aspired to become one, and always maintained many of the habits and practices of a nineteenth-century German scholar.4 Almost unavoidably, the author of any book about Marx, even one setting him in his nineteenth-century context, is going to be asked for an opinion about his contemporary relevance. Two versions of doing so go under the general heading of “Marxology,” or Marxist theory. One is the attempt to update Marx, to make his ideas more relevant by adding to them or reinterpreting them in the light of psychoanalysis, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, or elements of any other intellectual movement emerging in the years between Marx’s death in 1883 and the present. The second version is the study of Marx’s own ideas, so that revisions and later accretions can be erased and Marxism can be returned to its original purity: a project more suited to adherents of revealed religion than proponents of a purportedly secular and rationalist theoretical framework. Speaking as a historian, someone committed to understanding the past on its own terms, and reserved about judging it by present conceptions, I find these versions of Marxology singularly useless pastimes. Marx’s life, his systems of thought, his political strivings and aspirations, belonged primarily to the nineteenth century, a period of human history that occupies a strange place in relation to the present: neither evidently distant and alien, like the Middle Ages, nor still within living memory as, for instance, the world of the age of total war, or communist regimes of the Eastern bloc in the years 1945–89. Every once in a while, the nineteenth century suddenly emerges into the present, with an eerie clarity and familiarity. A prime example are the revolutions of 1848, whose rapid spread from country to country in a few months was a central political event of the nineteenth century, but since then have been known only to historical specialists. All at once, these obscure uprisings seemed current and familiar during the fall of 1989, as revolutions moved through communist Eastern Europe, or in the winter of 2011 as they raced through the Arab world. Much the same can be said about the relationship of Marx’s life and thought to the present: there are moments of familiarity, but more often than not, I am struck by the differences—between Marx’s world and the contemporary one, or between his system of thought and his political aspirations and those of his twentieth-century successors, who called themselves “Marxists.” Critics of these Marxists see Marx as a proponent of twentieth-century totalitarian terrorism, as intellectually responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s mass murders. Defenders of Marx’s ideas vigorously reject these assertions, often interpreting Marx as a democrat and proponent of emancipatory political change. Both these views project back onto the nineteenth century controversies of later times. Marx was a proponent of a violent, perhaps even terrorist revolution, but one that had many more similarities with the actions of Robespierre than those of Stalin. In a similar way, adherents of contemporary economic orthodoxy, the so-called neoclassical economic theorists, dismiss Marx’s economics as old-fashioned and unscientific, while his proponents suggest that Marx understood crucial features of capitalism, such as regularly recurring economic crises, that orthodox economists cannot explain. Marx certainly did understand crucial features of capitalism, but those of the capitalism that existed in the early decades of the nineteenth century, which both in its central elements and in the debates of political economists trying to understand it is distinctly removed from today’s circumstances. If Marx was not our contemporary, more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present, one might ask why anyone should write a new biography of him, or, once that biography exists, bother reading it. One answer is that the nineteenth century itself remains fascinating and important, even if it does belong to an increasingly distant past. Explicating Charles Darwin’s ideas remains significant, even though Darwin lacked modern knowledge of genetics. The life and struggles of Mazzini and his right-hand man Giuseppe Garibaldi continue to be intriguing, even if the political issues crucial to them have long been resolved. Bismarck’s diplomatic maneuvering and his skillful statesmanship attract attention, although their framework, that of the five European great powers, has been obsolete for almost one hundred years. But the value of studying the nineteenth century goes beyond the good stories to tell about it. It is precisely by perceiving the contrasts between that century and the present that the latter appears in its own distinct light. Seeing Marx in his contemporary context, not ours, helps illuminate our current situation and is one of the major intellectual virtues of a biography in the early decades of the twenty-first century. PART I Shaping 1 The Son KARL MARX WAS BORN in the southwest German city of Trier in 1818, at the end of three decades of revolutionary upheaval and counterrevolutionary response that shaped the lives of his parents, strongly influenced his upbringing and education, and created political passions and political enemies that would remain with ...
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